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:

 

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LEN AND COMPANY (2016)

June 10, 2016

Len Greetings again from the darkness. Mining a mid-life crisis for new film material often results in something we have seen on screen too many times in the past. However the first feature film for writer/director Tim Godsall and co-writer Katharine Knight draws inspiration from the 2008 Carly Mensch one-act play “Len, Asleep in Vinyl”, and what we get is a terrific little indie gem with multiple interesting characters.

Highly successful music producer Len Black has pretty much “dropped out” of society as evidenced by his quitting in the midst of an awards ceremony, and by his new hobby of floating in the algae-laden swimming pool at his country estate. His self-imposed exile seems designed to magically reveal the meaning of life and lead to a form of self-discovery. Soon his peaceful deep-in-thought zen is disrupted – first by the arrival of his estranged son Max, and then by the presence of his pop star protégé Zoe. Len is perturbed by the uninvited guests, and shows nothing approaching warmth or caring towards either.

What we really have is a 3 person collision of psychological crisis. Len is attempting to come of age (a bit late, given he’s in his mid-40’s); OCD Max has dropped out of school in hopes of making it with his band; and Zoe is on the verge of an emotional breakdown. Three messes all intertwined with each other, as Max just wants Len to be a dad this one time, and Zoe wants him to show a little compassion and not treat her like the pop music ATM she has become. Despite the relentless attention she has from her public and fans, what she needs is a bit of attention from the guy that got her into this.

Rhys Ifans plays Len, and his outstanding performance makes the film work. He realizes he’s a jerk, but has no clue how to atone for the past. Jack Kilmer (Val’s son who is also the “projectionalist” in The Nice Guys) plays Max as a carefully considered young man who is never without his “to do” list. Juno Temple plays Zoe, and perfectly captures the two sides and delicacy of young fame. As an added bonus, the fourth wheel is local kid William (Keir Gilchrist, It’s Kind of a Funny Story), who ironically is a surrogate-son type to Len, and helps out with chores around the house. There is also a brief sequence featuring the always great Kathryn Hahn as Len’s ex and Max’s mom.

The heaviness of the emotional stuff is offset brilliantly by comedic moments … some small, others not so small. The scene with Len addressing William’s classroom (in a quasi-take-a-parent-to-school day) is both hilarious and insightful. Minus any decorum or good judgment, Len spills to the students what his life has been. It’s a turning point in the film as we finally see him as more than the dirtbag we originally thought. It also leads to Len’s rant – right in Max’s face – about the roots of rock and roll, and how a privileged, uptight young man couldn’t possibly have the soul and spirit required to make a go of it.

Lessons are learned by all, and much enlightenment has occurred by film’s end. Of course, those doing the teaching and those doing the learning are a bit unconventional, as it’s Len who finally figures out solitude and loneliness may not be a worthy goal. It’s a wonderful first feature from the filmmakers and a top notch performance from Mr. Ifans.

watch the trailer:

 


THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012)

July 7, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The big debate seems to be whether it is too soon for the Spider-Man franchise to be re-booted. It was just 10 years ago when Tobey Maguire first appeared as Spidey and a mere 5 years ago when director Sam Raimi delivered the last leg in his trilogy. Obviously the reason to re-boot starts with “doll” and ends with “ars”. It is more interesting to decide if this is an improvement over the previous series.

We must first look at Spider-man himself. Played here by Andrew Garfield, we get a more thoughtful Peter Parker and a more athletic Spidey version than we had with Maguire. As usual, my pet peeve is that Garfield is a 28 year old man cast as an 18 year old high school science nerd. Looking past that, Garfield manages to pull off the stunts without looking too much like a real super hero. So that’s a plus. Luckily for him, his scenes with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) work because Ms. Stone is such a super talent. She makes everything she is in, just a little bit better.

Next we look at the villain. Rhys Ifans plays scientist Dr Curt Connors, who transforms into Lizard in the quest to regenerate growth of his lost right arm. He was once partners with Peter’s dad in their research into reptilian genetics. While Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) from Spider-Man 2 is still my favorite villain in the series, it’s clear that Lizard is certainly capable of frightening the younger viewers, so parents beware. It should also be noted that Dr Curt Connors was played by Dylan Baker in the Sam Raimi trilogy.

 Lastly, we look at the story. This take is much more personal and provides detail to the backstory of Peter Parker. We learn how (but not exactly why) he lost his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) and see how he came to be raised by Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). We see how Peter and Gwen Stacy come together and learn that she is every bit his equal intellectually, if not a notch above. Casting Dennis Leary as Gwen’s Police Chief dad works as Leary and Garfield exchange barbs at the table. Peter is still a photographer, but this time for the school instead of The Daily Bugle … whose logo makes an appearance on TV.

Director Marc Webb was somehow selected for this despite his only feature film being (500) Days of Summer … not exactly a film known for its CGI. Admittedly, the CGI used here is less rushed and cluttered than in previous Spidey films and many of the stunts look to be real stunts instead of the fake stuff. The closing credit cookie clearly sets up the sequel, though I can only guess that the shadowy figure is Norman Osborn. That’s still up for debate.

** NOTE: fear not, we get the now expected Stan Lee cameo

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of comic book heroes and simply enjoy the bigger than life films, even if it’s not at the level of The Avengers (it’s still better than Green Lantern)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are limiting yourself to one super hero movie this year … if so, make it The Dark Knight Rises

watch the trailer:

 

 


ANONYMOUS

October 31, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. While it is clear that writer John Orloff and director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) believe that Edward De Vere, The Earl of Oxford, and not Will Shakespeare, wrote the infamous and iconic plays we have celebrated for 400 years, my advice is to watch this as a Hollywood movie and not a docu-drama. Hollywood is at its best when exaggerating, twisting and dramatizing historic events and figures .. .and presenting the lot as fact.

You may be an expert on Shakespeare and even Elizabethan history, but whether you are or whether you are not, my guess is that you will find this to be interesting and thought-provoking. You may agree with the idea that Shakespeare was not the prolific and talented author, but this movie provides only one possible alternative … with no scientific proof or actual documentation. We see Rhys Ifans and Jamie Campbell Bower portray Edward De Vere as the older and younger version respectively. Both capture his passion for writing and frustration at being unable to live the life for which he was born.

 Vanessa Redgrave and her real life daughter Joely Richardson portray Queen Elizabeth at the older and younger stages, and we certainly get a distinctive impression of how “the Virgin Queen” may have been mis-labeled as much as any figure in history. Many lovers and illegitimate children are mentioned and the web of secrecy would have been exhausting, given the vast responsibilities of her position.

 Rafe Spall portrays Will Shakespeare as what one might call The Village Idiot. The buffoonery we see from this man is an extreme that weakens the case for De Vere, rather than strengthen it. Though talented writer Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) was De Vere’s first choice, the lack of morals by the illiterate actor Shakespeare allows him to seize a capitalistic opportunity and soak up the audience love.

The best part of the film is the realistic look and feel of the streets, the Globe Theater and costumes. Rhys Ifans is exceptional in the role of De Vere, and the story itself plays out much like one of Shakespeare’s plays. The downside is, I believe most will find the multitude of characters and time-lines and sub-plots to be quite confusing at times. Don’t take a bathroom break or you’ll miss new babies being born and royal overthows being planned.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a Shakespeare buff OR you subscribe to the theory that the Bard has been mis-identified for 4 centuries

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer not to need a note pad to keep up with the players and plots

watch the trailer: