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:

 


THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE (2010)

July 15, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Well, it’s the best kind of Nic Cage role … very little dialogue and plenty of scenes with him not included. Lots of special effects. Has some similarities to movies like National Treasure (another Jon Turtletaub directorial effort) and The Shadow. Can you tell I am struggling to find the positives?

The basic story involves Merlin’s three assistants (Balthazar, Horvath and Veronica) and their struggles after Merlin is killed by the evilest of all evil, Morganna (Alice Krige). Of course, that murder happened hundreds of years ago and poor Balthazar has been on a global search for the only sorcerer’s apprentice who can save the world in case Morganna is released.

Since Veronica (Monica Bellucci) sacrificed herself to capture Morganna, it is really important to Balthazar (Cage) that he find this apprentice who can also help revive Veronica, who is his one true love. The bad guy is Horvath (played well by Alfred Molina). He is on a mission to release Morganna so she can destroy the world and choose him as her assistant. Yeah, I know, lots of details that don’t really matter.

The reluctant apprentice is played by Jay Baruchel. Or someone playing Jay Baruchel. Can’t really tell since every role he takes is EXACTLY the same character. At least here he plays a physics prodigy. Yeah, right.

Next to Molina, the most fun is had when Toby Kebbell (RocknRolla) is on screen. He is a real hoot and these two play well off each other. The other attempt at humor is a weak homage to the Disney classic Fantasia, replete with moving mops, etc. No surprise, the sequence comes up well short of the original and Baruchel just doesn’t have the physical skills to pull it off.

I assume this movie is aimed at 10 year olds and I am just not sure they will understand the story, though I feel confident the big special effects and cool car chase will be enough for a few oohs and ahhs. Those over 10 … enter at your own risk.


KICK-ASS (2010)

April 17, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Just when you are convinced the comic book movie genre has been overdone, in swoops director Matthew Vaughn (the rocking Layer Cake) to reach an entirely new level through a unique, unconventional and twisted approach. It does’t take but a few minutes to realize that clichés mixed with shocks will mess with your movie-processing mind!

Somehow we are treated to teen angst,superhero-ism and most every human emotion and type between the two. WARNING: this movie is rated R and it is a strong R … IT IS NOT FOR KIDS! The film slam-dances between ultra violence and uber-geekdom and satire driven slapstick. We get a 12 year old Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl, wielding weapons even more deadly than her shockingly adult tongue. Moretz was also a standout in last year’s 500 Days of Summer. We get her revenge-driven, ex-clean cop Big Daddy father (Nicolas Cage) in Batman costume mentoring her to the ways of a world class assassin. I busted out laughing when I realized that Mr. Cage’s voice mannerism mimic that of the great Adam West while donning the black cape. A very nice touch. Our other home grown, would be superheroes are Aaron Johnson as Kick-ass (replete with green scuba suit) and McLovin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) as Red Mist. Most of these characters are one step removed from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Of course a comic book story must have a top notch villain and these days there are few better than Mark Strong. He delivers another terrific dead-pan performance as a drug lord and father to Red Mist. Strong’s character is the driving force behind Big Daddy’s quest for revenge.

Aaron Johnson’s Kick-ass is an example of the clunky teenager who has a good heart and is desperate for attention from the girls. He even accepts being labeled as gay by the hot chick he adores just so he can spend time with her. He hangs at the comic book store with his equally geeky friends and then “transforms” into Kick-ass, a superhero with no powers other than a desire to do what’s right and help those in need.

Mark Millar’s script balances many cultural and societal observations while delivering a visual parade of images and sounds (wonderful music and score … including ELVIS) and moments that will keep the viewer unsettled. You might think it odd that an early scene lingers on a giant advertisement featuring Claudia Schiffer. Ms. Schiffer is married to the director and becomes one of many tributes and satires throughout the film. This is quite a different experience and one that not all will enjoy … but it is to be admired for reaching for new levels.