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.

This Is Where I Leave You Review – Family Foibles


Director: Shawn Levy

Writer: Jonathan Tropper (screenplay & novel)

Stars: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver


Release date: October 23rd, 2014

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 103 minutes


 

2½/5

Best part: The dynamic cast.

Worst part: The tedious gross-out gags.

Hollywood’s latest home-for-the-holidays venture, This Is Where I Leave You, strives to speak to, and for, the masses. Promising relatable situations and interesting characters, this big-budget dramedy strains and creaks whilst grounding itself. Crafting a slicker-than-shoe-polish version of reality, these movies, despite their commendable intentions, never convince. How can they be realistic, anyway? They feature ultra-wacky set pieces and ultra-popular celebrities. Even character-actor Corey Stoll, seen in the background of several recent movies and TV shows, has more money than everyone in Kansas combined.

Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll & Adam Driver.

Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll & Adam Driver.

Fuelled by Kings of Leon, American Authors, a relatable concept, and a starry cast, TIWILY‘s egregious marketing campaign highlighted the broad appeal. Given these actors’ big-and-small-screen successes, the formula seemed destined for positive results. The poster, plonking each big-name next to one another, sums up modern entertainment’s pros and cons. Sadly, the words “formula” and “conventional” linger throughout the final product. The movie, the latest in a series of familial dramedies, isn’t any better or worse than August: Osage County or The Judge. Like the aforementioned celluloid distractions, this dramedy’s reach drastically exceeds it grasp. The story kicks off with a wholly fantastical version of New York City. Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is a radio station manager living the dream. Coming home early from work, he’s shocked to discover his wife Quinn(Abigail Spencer)’s year-long affair with Judd’s favourite shock-jock/boss Wade (Dax Shepard). After three months of excessive remorse, heartache, and beard-growing, the newly divorced Judd is informed of his dad Mort’s passing. The Altman family – rounded out by matriarch Hilary (Jane Fonda), Judd’s sister Wendy (Tina Fey), older brother Paul (Stoll), and youngest Philip (Adam Driver) – come together for the funeral. As per Mort’s last request, the family must sit Jewish mourning custom Shiva. Stuck in their old home for seven days, the Altman’s past and present quarrels collide. Amongst the chaos, several key players show up to further elevate or deflate each family member.

Jane Fonda & Debra Monk.

Based on Jonathan Tropper’s book of the same name, TIWILY feels like an all-too-literal adaptation. Handing screenplay duties over to Tropper, the movie seemingly utilises every page to fill its 103-minute run-time. The original material, perfect for novel length, is lugubriously laid out across this cumbersome script. Like many dramedies, there’s way too much going on. Throwing in more sub-plots and characters than needed, the narrative’s top-heavy structure wains half-way through. The quiet parts, despite straining against the movie’s glorious sheen, deliver subtle and genuine moments. Certain character interactions, bolstered by its engaging cast and witty dialogue, are almost worth the admission cost. Several sequences work efficiently, depicting insults and stories thrown between troubled by fun-loving people. However, crushed under the narrative’s immense weight, the central plot-strands lack emotional weight or sustenance. Bumping into school friend/manic pixie dream girl Penny (Rose Byrne), Judd’s story-line is predictable, soulless, and tepid. Drowning in an ocean of A-listers, montages, and clichés, Bateman explores yet another sad-sack character. This dramedy – lacking the class, bravado, and cockiness of Arrested Development – adds to the comedic actor’s post-TV slump. However, thanks to quick-wit and charisma, the nice-guy lead delivers a measured performance. In fact, Judd, despite his conflict’s tiresome twists and turns, is the most likeable and intriguing character. The surrounding family members, defined by specific traits (new breasts, baldness, immaturity etc.), are mean-spirited and one note.

“It’s hard to see people from your past when your present is so cataclysmically screwed up.” (Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), This Is Where I Leave You).

Rose Byrne.

Rose Byrne.

Director Shawn Levy (the Night at the Museum series, The Internship) applies his hack-and-slash style to this subdued dramedy. Levy – whose  filmography includes Cheaper by the Dozen, the Pink Panther remake, and Real Steel – isn’t known for intelligence, verve, or sensitivity. Touching on adultery, familial strife, and religion, its concepts construct only silly scenarios and corny ramblings. Despite the premise, the family’s Jewish heritage is picked up and dropped without warning. Certain sequences, despite the lack of consequences or emotional resonance, deliver big laughs and nice moments. Getting high in a synagogue, Bateman, Stoll, and Driver’s characters deliver comedic and dramatic shades. Also, Fonda’s ever-lasting figure is given significant attention. Playing an open-minded writer/therapist, Fonda charges through the role. The movie serves to boost its actors’ career trajectories. Fey, known for writing and leading better comedic material, excels despite her underwhelming and manipulative sub-plot. Contending with old-flame Horry (Timothy Olyphant) (suffering permanent brain damage from an accident several years earlier), her character’s conflicts deserve more development. In addition, Phillip’s sub-plot – fighting to keep his relationship with older girlfriend/therapist Tracy (Connie Britton) going whilst fighting off former conquests – serves to kickstart slapstick gags and wild misunderstandings. Furthermore, Paul and his zany wife Annie(Kathryn Hahn)’s attempts to conceive yield even-more-implausible set pieces. Despite the misjudged material, character-actors Debra Monk and Ben Schwartz get enough time to shine.

Biting off much more than it can chew, TIWILY is hindered by a lackluster filmmaker and tiresome screenplay. Tropper, despite handing his own material, misjudges the adaptation process. Crafting too many story-lines, characters, and twists, the book-to-film translation lacks joy, weight, or warmth. Despite the distasteful, A-listers-pretending-to-be-normal phoniness, the cast succeeds. Bateman, despite playing yet another down-on-his-luck loner, is charming and affable. Meanwhile, Fey, Stoll, Fonda, and Driver craft entertaining moments. Ultimately, this self-conscious effort never surprises, inspires, or even convinces. Welcome to Hollywood!

Verdict: A charming yet cloying dramedy.