SNOWDEN (2016)

September 15, 2016

snowden Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve never really understood the artistic benefit to filming a biography after a spectacular documentary on that person has already been produced, made the rounds, and racked up awards. But then, I guess the point has little to do with art, and more to do with economics (documentaries are historically a money losing venture). Renowned director Oliver Stone brings us the story of Edward Snowden just two years after filmmaker Laura Poitrus won the Oscar for Best Documentary for her Citizenfour.

Much of what Ms. Poitrus documented in real time at the Mira Hotel in Japan is re-enacted here as one of the three core storylines in Mr. Stone’s film. To his credit, he fills in much of the backstory and Snowden’s resume by starting with a failed attempt at joining Special Forces (tumbling off the top bunk is automatic disqualification if it shatters one’s leg).

Joseph Gordon-Levitt mimics Snowden’s low key mannerism and measured vocals, while also fiddling with his eyeglasses during key moments. As a sought-after role for an actor, Snowden ranks a few rungs below, say Howard Hughes or Franklin Roosevelt or most any other person who has had an impact on America … just not much personality to work with – though his actions have created some of the most interesting discussions over the past few years.

Joining Snowden in the hotel room are Melissa Leo as Ms. Poitrus, Zachary Quinto as journalist Glenn Greenwald, and Tom Wilkinson showing off a Scottish accent as journalist (from The Guardian) Ewen MacAskill. The second storyline takes us through the initial recruitment and subsequent rise through the CIA and NSA, as we see how Snowden continually uncovered more about how the government was spying on citizens. His interactions along the way – such as Rhys Ifans as his CIA mentor Corbin O’Brian and Nic Cage as disgruntled agent Hank Forrester – provide a spark of energy on screen. The third piece of the pie revolves around Snowden and his politically-polar-opposite girlfriend Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley.

Since it’s an Oliver Stone movie (he co-wrote the screenplay with Kiernan Fitzgerald), we fully expect his political views to be on full display. It’s clear he is sympathetic and fully supportive of Snowden’s actions, and does his best to paint him as a patriot who had no choice but to go public with his belief that the spying had nothing to do with terrorism, but was instead a form of social and economic control. Based on the books “The Time of the Octopus” by Anatoly Kutcherena and “The Snowden Files” by Luke Harding, the film portrays Snowden as increasingly disenchanted and disappointed, beginning in 2003 and moving through 2013.

Stone’s feel for visuals come into play as we track Snowden through Virginia, Geneva, Hawaii, Japan and finally Russia. Along the route, familiar faces pop up in almost every new scene – Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Lakeith Stanfield (Short Term 10), Logan Marshall-Green, Ben Chaplin, Ben Schnetzer, and Joely Richardson. There are a couple of sequences in which Stone applies his stamp … a party with drones hovering overhead (until they aren’t), and an impactful full wall Skype with Rhys Ifans’ face looming larger than Snowden’s entire body.

Whistleblower or turncoat? Hero or traitor? Most people fall pretty clearly on one side of the debate, and there’s no doubt where Stone stands. Just prior to the voice of Peter Gabriel over the closing credits and clips of the real Ed Snowden, there is a fancy edit where Stone shows him at his computer in his current home in Russia. Stone’s movie makes a nice companion piece to Citizenfour, but if you are only going to see one, choose the documentary.

watch the trailer:

 


DON JON (2013)

September 26, 2013

don jon1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been a few months since I saw a screening, and I’m a bit surprised it’s getting a wide release (beginning September 27). On one hand, it’s the directorial debut of the very talented and popular Joseph Gordon-Levitt. On the other hand, the subject matter is not exactly mainstream … he plays a compulsive type who is addicted to online porn. Stereotypes abound!

There is a lot to like here (and no, the film is not pornographic in nature). It’s a front line observation of some things going on in society right now. Technology has quickly sucked away much of our face to face social interaction. Jon (JGL) has a compulsive personality. He is obsessed with cleaning his apartment, showing off his muscle car, perfecting his body at the gym, continuing his string of one-night stands with hot girls, confessing his sins to the priest, and last but not least … online porn. He sees nothing wrong with his addiction but readily admits his real life conquests don’t meet his standards – no matter how pretty or personable they might be. Still, he goes through the motions of dance club pursuits to keep up his image with his buddies.

don jon2 Even when he heads home for dinner with his family, communication is a mess. His sister (the great Brie Larson) never puts down her phone. His parents (Glenne Headly and Tony Danza) are bombastic and emotional. When Jon meets a “dime” (translated to a perfect 10 … why didn’t Blake Edwards think of that?), his mother talks only of grandkids and his dad congratulates him on “a nice piece of ___” (you get the point).

See, this “dime” is Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson. She has the look Jon so values and since he has no concept of how a relationship works, she easily manipulates him to transition into her ideal man (rom-com movies, college courses, etc). In a very telling scene, Barbara and Jon take in a Rom-Com spoof “based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks” and starring Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum. Barbara’s perfect man is a fictionalized knight in shining armor, while Jon’s perfect woman is the latest porn star. Though the issues are identical, neither sees their own flaws … only that of the other.

don jon3 The story takes a dramatic turn when Jon meets Esther (Julianne Moore) in a somewhat embarrassing incident (for him). The budding relationship between the older mentor and her student of life could have made a much more interesting movie as she guides him down a path of self-discovery.

JGL, Scarlett and Ms. Moore are all very good in their roles, as is the entire supporting cast (Danza especially comical as the perfectly cast dad). Although there are some very humorous scenes and lines in the film, I found it somewhat dis-spiriting due to the observations it makes on the young adult generation. The final act seemed a bit too clean for real life, but that doesn’t take away from what is really a nice first outing for Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a filmmaker. Stay tuned as I expect even better from him in the future.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are brave enough for a peek at the social lives of single young adults in today’s world OR you want to see how the talented Joseph Gordon-Levitz handles his first hat trick: writer/director/actor

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Scarlett’s “Jersey Shore” accent is more than your ears can stand.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6615kYTpOSU


LINCOLN (2012)

November 19, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The movie lover in me has been anxiously awaiting this one for months. On the other hand, as a citizen, the recent Presidential campaign antics put me in quite the political funk. Tired of the rhetoric and disenchanted with the current leadership, I was concerned my thoughts might poison the outlook on director Steven Spielberg‘s latest. Fortunately, both Lincoln and Lincoln allowed me to forget those in charge today, and instead witness the look and feel of true leadership and greatness.

Despite the title, this is not simply a biographical sketch of our 16th President. Rather, it’s an essay on back room politics … the key to Washington and democracy. Deal-cutting, horse-trading, arm-twisting are just some of the strategies involved in reaching compromise. When the stakes are history … abolishing slavery … the passion of those unseen actions is intensified. We see a man at the height of his power willing to do what is necessary to reach a goal in which he fervently believes – even though his views are not shared by a great many others.  Ratifying the 13th Amendment could have been quite dry in lesser hands, but Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis are experts at what they do.

Some of the most fun in the film occurs during the House floor debates between Republicans and Democrats. These scenes serve as a reminder that the two parties are often at philosophical odds and, just as designed, debate and discussion lead to compromise and advancement. At least that’s the general idea and purpose. Next to Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, err, embodiment of Lincoln, the script is what really jumped out at me. Loosely based on “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tony Kushner’s screenplay serves up dialogue that is sharp, crisp, entertaining, thought-provoking and filled with message. This is a very talky film, not a Civil War film. We only get a couple of brief battlefield scenes, but the conversations never allow us to forget that the brutal war is always on the mind of the politicians and citizens. Some of the theatricality teeters closely to the look and feel of a play, though it is quite effective for the ongoing politicking. I hope Kushner’s work is remembered come Oscar time … especially for the way he worked in the full text for both the Gettysburg Address and the 13th Amendment.

I’ve always held a certain fascination with Abraham Lincoln. Familiarity with with the legends, the icon, the monuments, the statues, even the automatronics at Disney World so many years ago.  It is with true awe that I recognize what Daniel Day-Lewis delivers. His presence is so powerful that I found it all but impossible to look at anything else when he was on screen. That will certainly mandate a second viewing, but I have no hesitancy in recommending a film that brings to life what a great man can be … what true leadership can be. This is a man who carries his burdens in his soul. He may have been self-educated, but in addition to Shakespeare and Euclid, Mr. Lincoln understood people. That knowledge allowed him to maintain his high principles through patience and reasoning and even (sometimes) humorous story-telling.

 We are never allowed to forget that this is a Spielberg movie. The scenes with Lincoln and Mary Todd (Sally Field) are somewhat distracting to the greater stories, but perhaps that’s the point. These discussions were distractions to him as well. In fact, Spielberg is quite kind to Mary Todd Lincoln. Other tales have not been. Either way, Ms. Field is effective, though I wish for the sake of the film, she had less screen time.

The supporting cast is a who’s who of character actors. Most won’t be named here but Tommy Lee Jones is a key player as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, a radical abolitionist; David Strathairn as Sec of State William Steward has Lincoln’s trust; Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln’s son; and Jackie Earle Haley plays the Confederate VP Alexander Stevens. There is also a tribunal of political lobbyists or fixers that add quite the element of dirty-politics: James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson.  Appomattox is handled with class – a quick scene showing a prideful General Robert E Lee departing, and we get a couple of scenes with General Ulysses S Grant (Jared Harris).

 Lastly, the score from the great John Williams excels and compliments the mood and pace of the story … he is careful to never overwhelm. Williams is probably in line for his 48th Oscar nomination (second only to Walt Disney). Though I wish it had ended with the scene depicted at left, this is a film about political process and the people who made that process work – even at a time when everyone thought the choice had to be made between ending the war and abolishing slavery. Choose one, you can’t have both. Abraham Lincoln proved that sometimes the right man is in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, those times come around very rarely.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you too want to be mesmerized by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln OR you like your history lessons to be entertaining and easy on the eyes

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your history to come straight from the textbooks with little more than a few photographs for prosperity OR you don’t like Sally Field.  You really don’t like her.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJVuqYkI2jQ


LOOPER (2012)

September 29, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/Director Rian Johnson (Brick) delivers a very entertaining, creative, thrilling and clever sci-fi film that features time travel, dark comedy, romance, metaphysics, and enough action to keep just about any viewer engaged … as long as you enjoy using your brain a bit.  This one requires some assembly … and the ability to ignore the horribly distracting make-up/prosthetic/special effects used to make Joseph Gordon-Levitt look like a young Bruce Willis (he doesn’t).

Source Code, the recent film from Duncan Jones, used time travel in very limited segments. In 2074, time travel is perfected, but has been declared illegal. So, of course, only crime syndicates use it. When you think about it, sending your enemies back in time to be killed and disposed of is brilliant. It’s very difficult to solve a missing person case when the body has been incinerated 30 years prior. The future mob boss known as The Rainmaker hires “loopers” from 30 years past to handle the dirty work. When The Rainmaker begins “closing loops”, he does so by sending the loopers back in time to be killed by their younger selves. Yes, somehow this works.

Well it works until Seth (Paul Dano) chokes up and lets his future self escape. That doesn’t go over well with the modern day (sent from the future) crime boss (Jeff Daniels) who just can’t allow these future guys to be roaming free. Then, just like that, the same thing happens to Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). His future self (Bruce Willis) appears, young Joe flubs the kill, and the next thing you know, Young Joe and Old Joe are seated in a booth at a remote diner ordering the same breakfast and staring into their own eyes.  You may recall that Mr. Willis is an acting time travel expert thanks to his “trips” in Tweleve Monkeys and The Kid.

It’s impossible not to compare to some other time travel movies (there have been MANY).  There are certainly similarities to The Terminator, but not so much to Hot Tub Time Machine or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.  It’s a tricky topic because it involves the uncertainty of how things done today might impact what has already happened. Or something like that.  It would have been interesting to get more flavor from the 2074 world, since all we see is the blissful (until it’s not) presence of Old Joe and his saviour bride. Also, you have to believe that if you came face to face with the future “you”, there might be at least a brief Q&A.

 Plenty of fun stuff in this one, although, I had a tough time buying a blond Emily Blunt as a Kansas farmer. Her young son Cid, played very well by Pierce Gagnon, is one of the more interesting characters in the film. He is supposed to the young version of the future Rainmaker, and he possesses some unusual traits … with Blunt trying to supply sufficient motherly love to prevent him from spinning off track.

Director Johnson has a knack of tossing in some dark humor at just the right time. Some of the romance seemed a bit forced, but the criminal element and the Joe vs Old Joe stuff was really fascinating to keep up with. If you enjoy movies that are somewhat challenging, and you can suspend reality for the time travel elements, it’s one that you’ll probably find quite entertaining.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: time travel and sci-fi tickle your fancy OR you want to see Hollywood’s best attempt to make Joseph Gordon-Levitt look like a young Bruce Wills

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Hot Tub Time Machine or Austin Powers are the level of seriousness you expect from time travel flicks

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iQuhsmtfHw


PREMIUM RUSH (2012)

August 28, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. This one gets bonus points because it is simply fun to watch. Though it fades from memory rather quickly, the film actually has surprisingly strong bones. It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Shannon … two very well respected and high profile actors for a movie that has such basic and cartoonish elements. David Koepp directed and co-wrote the script, and he too has an impressive status in Hollywood. Mr. Koepp directed the underrated Ghost Town, and his writing impact can be seen in movies such as Panic Room, War of the Worlds, and the following franchises: Spider-Man, Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Indiana Jones.

JGL plays Wilee, the “best” of the Manhattan bicycle messengers. If you have ever visited NYC, you surely have seen these seemingly fearless riders as they zip between taxis and people and delivery trucks. Wilee works out of an office run by Raj (Aasif Mandvi), and has a on/off relationship with fellow rider Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), and a slightly friendly rivalry with Manny (Wole Parks). Seriously, none of that really matters and the script could have been a group project in a community college film class.

What does lend the film it’s point of difference are the action-filled chase scenes through the busy streets of Manhattan. Since a movie needs some kind of plot, there is a purposefully absurd ticket with a hand-drawn smiley face that absolutely, positively has to be delivered by 7:00 pm. Otherwise, the child of Nima (Jamie Chung) doesn’t get to join its mother in the United States. See, Nima has been working 3 jobs to raise the fee the Chinese mafia demands for shipping people.

The chase scenes have a nice twist with CGI effects that demonstrate how the cyclists “see” the best route to take. We even get the dramatic and sometimes humorous results of a wrong decision. The chase that lasts pretty much the entire length of the movie is that of dirty cop and horrible gambler Bobby Monday (played by Michael Shannon). He is a desperate man and not even remotely clear thinking most of the time. It’s quite a different Shannon than we are used to … the silent simmering of his usual roles makes no appearance. Instead, we get full-throttle Michael Shannon – screaming, cussing, and over the top. Very odd to watch.

It seems as though every stunt person in New York was employed for the film, but the stand-ins are not easy to spot. The chase scenes are well filmed and quite entertaining. It’s an adrenaline rush that begins and ends with The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”. Just don’t expect the rush to last … they never do.

** NOTE: If you ever make a movie, keep in mind that if the story takes place within a 2 hour window, much money can be saved in the wardrobe budget.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are just looking for a fun, high speed ride through the traffic of Manhattan

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: simple stories annoy you even if they are a mechanism for frenetic action

watch the trailer:

 


THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

July 23, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a fan of the series, this is a sensational ending to the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. Though replicating Heath Ledger’s Joker is not possible, every other piece of this finale worked for me … and worked exceptionally well. There are critics who are nit-picking, saying that the story is muddled, the villain a letdown, run time too long, the first half is slow or the second half is too traditional in action. My challenge to these critics … name a better comic book hero film. For me, this is an incredibly entertaining and ambitious film that sets the standard for the genre.

 In addition to director Nolan, many of the familiar characters are back. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. New to the series are Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Officer Blake, Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate, and best of all, Tom Hardy as Bane – the hulking masked monster wreaking havoc on Batman and Gotham.

 I will not go into any of the plot points other than to say this is the first time we have seen a villain who is at least Batman’s match physically and mentally. Bane is a wrecking ball with a general’s strategic skills and voice that is begging to impersonated by intoxicated males of all ages for years to come. There are a couple of twists that add much fun for the fans of the first two films, including a return appearance by a key member of Batman Begins. Also, Michael Caine is given a couple of wonderful scenes to prove he is more than a driver and butler.

Since this is Batman, the action scenes have to be analyzed. It should be noted that Batman is not on screen very often, but when he is, it is quite thrilling. We have new toys and weapons, and quite a bit of fisticuffs with Bane and Catwoman that compete with any of the giant firepower scenes.  One of the more fascinating sets is the prison based in a pit of despair that harkens back to Poe. This pit plays an important role in the past and present.  For those who were worried that Catwoman’s presence might take away from the aura of the movie, fear not. Ms. Hathaway creates an interesting duality that proves very interesting.

 Neither Mr. Nolan nor his DOP Wally Pfister are proponents of 3D (Thank Goodness!!), so instead we get treated to 50 minutes of actual 70mm IMAX footage. This means, if possible, you should catch this on an IMAX screen. I have seen it IMAX and XD, and while both are visually stunning, the IMAX is an overwhelming site at times.

The movie picks up 8 years after the ending of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent is worshiped as a hero, and Bruce Wayne is a Howard Hughes type recluse – broken body and all. The initial aerial sequence is a fun start to a film that runs just under 3 hours. Of course, there is so much offered here that deserves comment, however, I believe the film is best watched with only the upfront primer of the first two films in the series. I will give nothing away here that might impact the joy of discovery during this gem. Contrary to some critics, I believe the story is fairly easy to follow and quite intense, thrilling and pure cinematic joy … including the thumping score from Hans Zimmer.

For those who claim there is a lack of humor … Exhibit #1: Hines Ward returning a kickoff for a TD. Come on, how long since he was fast enough for that??

Note: Though I haven’t addressed the Aurora shooting here, I did post a statement on the blog on July 20.

watch the trailer:


TMI (1-1-2012)

January 1, 2012

TMI (Today’s Movie Info)

 ABRAHAM LINCOLN is the subject of Steven Spielberg‘s next film.  With two films currently in theatres (The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse), Spielberg is already deep into production of Lincoln, which is based on the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The film features an incredibly deep cast led by Daniel Day-Lewis (left) as Honest Abe.  The supporting cast includes Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, Jared Harris as Ulysses S Grant, and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens.  Anticipated release date: Christmas 2012