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:

 


JFK (1991)

November 22, 2013

jfk1 Greetings again from the darkness. Fifty years to the day after the tragic assassination of President Kennedy seems like the best time for me to finally write something about Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film. As a Dallas resident, the hallmark event has never been far removed, either mentally or geographically. I periodically see movies at the Texas Theatre where Oswald was captured. It’s impossible to drive downtown and not regularly pass the Texas School Book Depository and Dealey Plaza. The reminders are always present and maybe that’s a good thing.

When this movie was released, it shook the dust off the story and brought much attention back to the crime that had once seemed so quickly solved. The conspiracy theorists embraced Mr. Stone’s work and even those who knew little of the Warren Report were swept up in the details and accusations. It was so easily accepted as an investigative presentation, and it was a way for the people to finally get what they wanted … the answer to what happened and why.

jfk2 Viewing the film this week again for the first time since 1991, it’s understandable why so many were swept up in the frenzy. This is an expert presentation of a staggering number of theories and details and characters. With a run time well over three hours, the only opportunities for an exhale come during the somewhat lame interactions between New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his wife (Sissy Spacek). Othewise, it’s a very well written parade of movie stars that is exceptionally photographed and expertly edited. Newsreel footage, reenactments, and dramatizations of events successfully create a mind puzzle. The film grabs you and does not let go … and this is 22 years after release and 50 years after the assassination.

Now don’t mistake that praise for believability. While Stone’s approach has been attacked from all sides, he did publish an annotated script “proving” his details. Still, his blending of theories is staggering: the military, the CIA, the FBI, LBJ, the Mafia, the pro- and anti-Castro types, the Russians, and even a likely corrupt businessman. The latter is Clay Shaw, played with evil enjoyment by Tommy Lee Jones in a role worthy of a movie unto itself.

jfk3 In Stone’s version, Garrison is the voice of truth. He’s the guy that doesn’t buy off on the Warren Report. In fact, this movie version of Garrison represents us as the viewer … the citizens who want to believe our government, but are too rational to accept things spoon fed to us. This isn’t so much a courtroom drama or investigative report, it’s more like a data dump. Stone is delivering all of the little doubts in one fell swoop. In other words, with all of these possibilities and unexplained events, how could it not be a conspiracy? Was it a coup d’etat with LBJ waiting in the wings? That makes sense if you believe defense contractors were unwilling to sit quietly as JFK pulled out of Vietnam. Was Oswald a patsy as he claimed? That argument can certainly be supported. More than one gunman? 5.6 seconds, a tree in the eye line, and smoke from the grassy knoll can lead to that conclusion. The movie serves as our emotional outburst at not knowing why this happened and who was responsible. We like our mysteries solved and this one apparently never will be.

Roger Ebert once said that facts are for print and emotions are for film. Oliver Stone seems to excel at the latter. He gives us permission to be paranoid. He takes extreme dramatic license with two extended soliloquies: Donald Sutherland as “X” (Fletcher Prouty) and Kevin Costner as Garrison in the courtroom. Neither of these events are probable, in fact the courtroom scene is borne from numerous Garrison speeches, quotes and book passages over the years.

This 50th anniversary has brought at least three new JFK inspired films: Parkland, Killing Kennedy, and Letters To Jackie. Three very different approaches to the man and the event that changed the world … it changed our perceptions and our expectations. Oliver Stone’s film gave us permission to do so out loud.

**NOTE: on the anniversary of this event, it’s important to remember that Officer JD Tippett was also brutally gunned down that day by Oswald

**NOTE: the real Jim Garrison appears in the movie as Earl Warren (yes, of the Warren Commission)

**NOTE: Unitended humor occurs with a sweaty John Candy saying “Daddy-O” and when Kevin Bacon says “People GOT to know

 


SAVAGES (2012)

July 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. I guess this qualifies as director Oliver Stone returning to his dark side. Based on Don Winslow‘s novel, it certainly has the foundation to be a complex, down-and-dirty, twisted plot, double-crossing, love triangle, ultra-violent, drug-dealing smörgåsbord. And while it possesses all of those elements, it still manages to come across as some slick Michael Mann cable TV project.

The film begins with narration from O (Blake Lively) who tells us that just because she is telling us this story, doesn’t mean she is alive at the end. Huh?? She also tells us that she is love with two drug-dealing buddies. Yes, both of them. Chon (Taylor Kitsch, John Carter) is the ex-Seal and muscle in the business. Ben (Aaron Johnson, Kick-Ass) is the gifted botanist who turns the magic Afghan seeds into the most potent pot in southern California. Oh, and Ben is also the ultimate philanthropist drug dealer. He builds schools in third world countries and invests in clean energy. After what felt like an eternity, the narration finally ended and I could stop yelling “Shut up, O” at the screen.

One day the boys receive a video via email. It’s an invitation to a business meeting with the Mexican Baja Drug cartel. Suffice to say that the video contained no balloons or party animals. It was more of a visual warning about what happens if you choose not to do business with them. The cartel front men are played by Demian Bichir (fresh off A Better Life) and Benecio Del Toro (MIA since The Wolfman). The queen of the cartel is Elena, played by Salma Hayak. Throw in a corrupt DEA agent, playing both sides against each other, portrayed by John Travolta, and all the pieces are in place for real fireworks once O is kidnapped (it’s in the trailer).

The rest of the movie is pretty much the war you would expect with some poor negotiation skills, torture and back-stabbing tossed in for fun. Overacting is the word of the day, especially from Travolta, Ms. Hayak and Emile Hirsch (money man). Still not sure what to make of Ms. Lively (The Town). The camera certainly loves her but it’s too early to tell if she has staying power as an actress. The only character that is really fun to watch is Lado, played by Del Toro. He is truly a frightening guy who also happens to have a deceptive mind on how to take over from the weak.

The whole good versus evil story line really only works if one side is good and one side is evil. If the good side (Ben) is a drug-dealer in a love triangle with his best friend, it’s much more difficult to muster empathy. Otherwise, when the necessary hostage/money exchanges occur, we really aren’t invested in the characters … and the action takes center stage. That’s the sign of a forgettable movie with no real heart.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see beautiful people playing drug dealers OR you want to see Benecio Del Toro at his sleazy best

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a gritty, down and dirty drug dealing drama with the political extremism we have come to expect from director Oliver Stone

watch the trailer:

 


WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS (2010)

September 26, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. The much anticipated sequel to the 1987 original has Oliver Stone back in the director’s seat for one of the most iconic characters in movie history, Gordon Gekko.  Michael Douglas is back as GG and the film opens as he is being released from prison … with no one there to pick him up. He is truly on his own.

Skip ahead a few years and we see Shia LeBeouf as Jake, a Wall Street hotshot working for Frank Langella, a Wall Street legend. It is very obvious that this legend, and Jake’s mentor, is in deep trouble and the entire market is pretty wobbly. Sound familiar? Yep, it’s 2008. Ahh yes, the juicy part … Jake is getting engaged to the lovely Winnie (Carey Mulligan) who just happens to be Gordon Gekko’s estranged daughter. Now we’re rolling!

Turns out, the dirty tricks and back room deals didn’t stop while Gekko was incarcerated. Josh Brolin plays a high roller for a thinly disguised firm that most will recognize as Goldman Sachs. Brolin thinks he was wronged a few years back by Langella, and can’t wait to get even when the opportunity presents itself in a meeting with the Treasury Secretary. Sound deliciously nasty? Well not so fast.

The movie steers away from much of the back-stabbing and dirty deal making that was so prevalent in the original. It even avoids much commentary on the scuzzy financial services industry leaders who managed to profit while all of our retirement plans and home values were plummeting. Instead, we get an overabundance of melodramatic, sappy conversation about feelings and family and time. Apparently Gekko found a semblance of a soul while in prison. He’s certainly not perfect, but this is not the wheeler-dealer that was so much fun to hiss in part one.

Oliver Stone tosses in some touches that help: Charlie Sheen reprises his Bud Fox role for a brief encounter with Gekko, there are some terrific shots of NYC and we get Sylvia Miles back as the Realtor – this time helping Jake dump his loft in a soft market. We even get 95 year old Eli Wallach whistling his way through a power role, complete with Jake’s ringer playing the theme song to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. All fun aspects, but they don’t offset the inordinate number of times we must endure people choking up and crying. Had to check the credits to see if Nora Ephron was co-director.

Bottom line, if you enjoyed the original, you probably owe it to yourself to see how Gekko has come full circle. The ride is fine, just not at the same level as we were treated 23 years ago.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoyed the 1987 original OR you have been waiting to see Shia LeBeouf play grown-up

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking tips on stocks or revenge OR your idea of fun is a steady stream of plastic surgery and “money room” jewelry