Snowden Review: Story half told


Director: Oliver Stone

Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone (screenplay), Luke Harding (book), Anatoly Kucherena (book)

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto

snowden-movie-poster


Release date: September 22nd, 2016

Distributor: Open Road Films

Country: USA, Germany

Running time: 134 minutes


3/5

Best part: Levitt and Woodley’s chemistry.

Worst part: The sluggish pace.

There are many words to describe whistleblower Edward Snowden. Descriptors like patriot, terrorist, rebel, whistleblower and tyrant have been used by all manner of people. In spite of finger pointing and name calling, there is no doubt this is a fascinating tale. 2014’s Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour exposed the truth behind one of the 21st Century’s most alarming leaks of classified information.

As Citizenfour proved, the fiery debate over cyber-security, privacy and whistleblowing rages on. So, with the documentary and internet providing maximum information, what does docudrama Snowden do differently? Not much. We first meet Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) being kicked out of special forces for dodgy legs. A devastated young Snowden joins the CIA under Corbin O’Brian(Rhys Ifans)’s watchful eye. The computer genius rises up the ranks and delves further into the system. He finds the government and security agency NSA’s secrets. His discoveries affect his and long-term girlfriend Lindsay Mills(Shailene Woodley)’s relationship. Years later, he reaches out to documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen McAskill (Tom Wilkinson) for help.

Obviously, Snowden finds the dirty details, steals secrets then leaks them to the press before going into exile in Moscow, Russia. This ongoing story is far from reaching a peaceful conclusion. A better docudrama would have detailed the journey’s ethical, emotional and psychological toll. Sadly, like The Fifth Estate, Snowden becomes a straightforward, useless stunt. Unlike Citizenfour, or anything the internet would provide, its delivers little information about Snowden’s identity, job or life-changing events. Each sub-plot and conflict merely blurs together. Set to a sluggish 134-minute run-time, it shifts lackadaisically between life moments. Instead of building drama and dread, he moves between jobs and countries without any impact. For better or worse, the narrative explores the nitty-gritty of analyst/spy work (finding contacts, moving between outposts etc).

Oliver Stone is a veteran director out of his league. He began with jagged-edge thrillers (Wall Street, Natural Born Killers) and war-dramas (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July). However, his last few (from Alexander through to Savages) have bitten the dust. Like the latter efforts, Snowden drags a top-notch premise and cast through the mud. Being one of Hollywood’s most opinionated filmmakers, Stone’s interest in Snowden seemed promising. However, his paranoia is almost laughable. The second act, when not languishing in Snowden and Lindsay’s relationship politics, delivers extended montages about cyber-security. His old-man-yells-at-cloud approach broadly targets the US Government, multi-million dollar corporations and those behind the scenes. Stone clumsily attempts to jazz up desk-jockey work and hacking with flashy visuals. Levitt and Woodley escape unscathed, delivering stellar impersonations of real-life counterparts.

Snowden had potential to tell a detailed story, bring Stone back from career suicide and showcase a quality cast. Instead, it’s a meandering, boilerplate procedural with little insight or even basic information. Stone’s out-of-touch direction and point of view deliver a snooze instead of a success.

Verdict: A wasted opportunity.

The Divergent Series: Allegiant Review: Out of Touch, Out of Time


Director: Robert Schwentke

Writers: Stephen Chbosky, Bill Collage, Adam Cooper, Noah Oppenheim (screenplay), Veronica Roth (Novels)

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jeff Daniels, Miles Teller

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Release date: April 14th, 2016

Distributor: Summit Entertainment

Country: USA

Running time: 120 minutes


 

1½/5

Review: The Divergent Series: Allegiant

White Bird in a Blizzard Review – Sex and the Suburbs


Director: Gregg Araki

Writers: Gregg Araki (screenplay), Laura Kasischke (novel)

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez


Release date: October 24th, 2014

Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 91 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Shailene Woodley.

Worst part: Shiloh Fernandez.

Hollywood, over the past few years, has waged war against optimism, relationships and marriage. In seeking to connect with modern/cynical audiences, big-budget cinema seemingly exists to criticize these well-intentioned, life-altering decisions. According to Tinseltown, life post-proposal is nothing but broken promises and empty souls longing for the “till death do us part” scenario to become reality. Following up Gone Girl and Men, Women & Children, White Bird in a Blizzard strives to put the final nail in the coffin.

Shailene Woodley & Shiloh Fernandez.

Shailene Woodley & Shiloh Fernandez.

In all honesty, despite seeing the positives of marriage, this socially recognised union is not my thing. In fact, White Bird in a Blizzard could spark many wide-ranging viewpoints about marriage, adolescence, and life. The movie, though intent on forming its own analysis, longs for multiple discussions about its story, themes, and characters. Writer/director Gregg Araki (Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin) has studied, and adapted to, this film/film-goer interaction throughout his career. So, does his latest feature stand up to criticism? As it turns out, White Bird in a Blizzard fits comfortably into his controversial filmography. The movie crafts itself around 1980s suburban America’s pros and cons. Its story follows promiscuous high school graduate Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley). Preparing herself for a degree at Berkeley, the youngster – despite her loving family and friends’ support – feels cut off from the rest of the world. Aided by her confident father Brock (Christopher Meloni) and detestable mother Eve (Eva Green), Kat’s life resembles that of your average adolescent. However, after Eve’s mysterious disappearance, Kat must pull herself back from the brink whilst asking the most important question of all: What happened to mum?

Christopher Meloni & Eva Green.

Christopher Meloni & Eva Green.

Based on Laura Kasischke’s best-selling novel, White Bird in a Blizzard takes on several genres and messages within its hurried 91-minute run-time. Exploring out-there stories and characters, Araki’s on-set intentions and off-set demeanour define him as one of American cinema’s most unusual auteur filmmakers. Known for his New Queer Cinema movement entries, he – similarly to Gus Van Sant – isn’t afraid of proclaiming his sexual orientation and significant viewpoints. Faced with fearsome opposition, his movies seek to destroy prejudice, conflict, and status quo. His latest effort, discussing societal norms and the studio system, has a helluva lot on its mind. In fact, like previous features, White Bird in a Blizzard depicts horrific events with subtlety, verve, and intelligence. Sticking to Araki’s independent roots, the narrative wears the veil of American Beauty whilst hiding many masochistic undertones. Harking back to Sam Mendes and Todd Solondz’ earlier works, this drama-thriller depicts a love-is-a-lie version of middle-class existence. Tearing his story-threads and characters apart, each sickening twist and turn further enlarge the central conflict’s cracks, tears, and erosion. Kat, pointing out her family and friend’s overt pretentiousness and transparency, becomes the knife slicing through society’s grand illusions. Our existentially frazzled lead, despite her boyfriend/neighbour Phil(Shiloh Fernandez)’s nice-guy nature, seeks primarily to destroy his booming reputation. Several scenes – featuring fluffy conversations between her and friends Beth (Gabourey Sidibe) and Mickey (Mike Indelicato) – strive to elevate our ‘protagonist’ above everyone else. 

“The beautiful woman she once was…became a phantom wandering away in a snowstorm.” (Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley), White Bird in a Blizzard).

Woodley, Gabourey Sidibe & Mark Indelicato.

Woodley, Gabourey Sidibe & Mark Indelicato.

Araki, not one for subtlety or objectivity, designed White Bird in a Blizzard to obliterate suburbia. Despite the approachable set-up, the movie thrusts deep-seeded emotions into the spotlight. Commenting on our evolution from 20th-century patio culture to 21st-century liberalism, the narrative revels in its views on feminism, masculinity, class warfare, gender politics, and relationships. Through flashbacks and dream sequences, we see a nightmarish insight into the Connor household. Eve, close to grinding glass into Brock’s dinner, appears stuck in a mind-numbing and lifeless void. Slipping into a booze-and-loose-clothes-addled depression, she leaps from glorified mistress to independent nightmare. Turning the tide throughout, the movie further examines its own disturbed, philosophical recesses. Biting off more than it can chew, it even tackles current young-adult, mystery-thriller, and relationship-drama trends. Crafting a Lovely Bones-esque switch from marriage to mystery, the narrative pokes fun at its whodunnit twists and turns. Whilst seducing Detective Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane), Kat openly calls her actions into question. Picking apart modern literature heroines’ weaknesses, it’s really an indictment against popular entertainment. She even has two good-looking guys fighting over her, outlined by her roommate’s “I’m Team Oliver” comments. In particular, Woodley’s casting illuminates Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars‘ misgivings. However, her sweet-natured performance, out-classing Meloni and co., highlights her immense dramatic talents.

Though Araki’s reach exceeds his grasp, his ambition and style cannot be faulted. Throwing bright colours, comically appealing narration, a kitsch soundtrack, and soap-opera-esque lines across his 11th feature, the writer/director Araki is one of few big-names crafting efforts of lasting effect and whip-smart attitude. White Bird in a Blizzard – thanks to its non-linear structure and self-aware humour – creates a thought-provoking contrast between reality and ‘reel life’.

Verdict: A potent and magnetic mystery-thriller.

The Descendants Review – Cloying Clooney


Director: Alexander Payne

Writers: Alexander Payne, Mat Faxon, Jim Rash (screenplay), Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel)

Stars: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Robert Forster


Release date: November 18, 2011

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 115 minutes


 

4½/5

Best part: The charismatic performances.

Worst part: The laboured pace.

George Clooney seems to enjoy playing the common working man; appearing perfectly fine on the outside but damaged and wanting more on the inside. He once again visits this character’s journey of self discovery and change in The Descendants, a film about letting your personal life spiral out of control when focusing on professional but less important matters.

George Clooney.

Clooney Plays Matt King, a Lawyer facing several major problems at once. His wife is in a deep coma after a boating accident and has a problem letting her go before their marital problems are resolved. He must also finalise a deal for the sale of 25, 000 acres of Hawaiian land owned by his ancestors. This disrupts the already troubled relationship between him and his two rebellious daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), who continually ignore his every rule and request. Thankfully the film never steers into largely corny or depressing territory.

Shailene Woodley & Nick Krause.

Based on a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) creates a very charming, funny, yet sentimental view of a family in crisis. The very human drama and characters propel this film above others of its type. The awkward situations and conversations are directed delicately, leading to a hilarious response from more than one party every time. Clooney plays its straight as a down to Earth guy struggling to keep his head above water. The desperation to balance all of his conflicts makes you forget about Clooney’s real life cool cat persona. His relationship with his daughters and Alex’s dopey friend Sid (Nick Krause) is the strongest element as the clash of duelling personalities defines the importance of family connections. Much like Payne’s earlier films, The Descendants‘ characters place their personalities in full view, making them both sympathetic and detestable at the same time. Woodley delivers a stand out debut performance as Alex, succinctly expressing anger for her parent’s  mistakes. The relationship between Matt and Alex develops throughout the film as they try to find the answers to multiple problems while repairing the shattered state of their family.

“Hey, I’m doing you a favour. I could go out there and fuck you up, so get a better attitude!” (Matt King (George Clooney), The Descendants).

Clooney & Beau Bridges.

The beautifully filmed Hawaiian locations provide an emotional contrast to The Descendants‘ story. Matt King’s honest narration in the first act, telling the vision of Hawaii as a ‘paradise’ where it should go, provides a strong foundation of how his mind works in these situations. King’s painfully harsh speech to his comatose wife after finding out her biggest secret illustrates the extent of his agonising situation. Leaving him, meant Matt had to do everything himself instead of just being the ‘back-up parent’. At the same time he tries to be a nice guy but is given nothing but  abuse by everyone around him. Characters such as cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), a witty and spiritual hippy-surfer strongly in favour of selling the land, Elizabeth’s angry, ageing father Scott Thorson (Robert Forster) and real estate mogul Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) are both like-able and unlike-able, making them incredibly realistic. Payne’s direction never allows you to dislike the characters despite the uncomfortable emotions directed by them towards Clooney’s determined and blunt character.

Payne, being on of Hollywood’s most interesting and prolific dramedy filmmakers, isn’t afraid to take things personally. His latest effort is a game changer in many respects, making all think a little differently about love, loss, Clooney, and paradise.

Verdict: A blunt and clever dramedy.