Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Edward Snowden Makes For a Compelling Cinematic Character in Citizenfour

Director Laura Poitras, an American-born living in Germany due to feeling self-described pressure from the U.S. government, relays the correspondence between her and the mysterious Citizenfour. Citizenfour details that the information he is giving Poitras is completely top secret, dangerous, and requires the utmost caution. While narrating their first conversation, her camera follows the fluorescent, ceiling lights of the dark tunnel her car is traveling through, leading the way towards cloak-and-dagger information and paranoia. When Poitras' automobile finally exits the underpass, we are blinded by the bright lights of daylight and Hong Kong. America's National Security Agency (NSA) pulled a shadow over the whole world as to how they were collecting their data and who they were watching, but their methods would soon come to light.

Citizenfour is, for those who have been living under a rock, former system administrator and NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Snowden secretly wrote to Poitras, due to her previous statements on government surveillance and filmic criticism on the US government, and Glenn Greenwald, lawyer and then Guardian journalist. After months of covert messages, Snowden invites Greenwald and Poitras to meet in Hong Kong, where Snowden gives his interview and the numerous files that details the NSA's domestic and foreign surveillance programs. It is here, in a Hong Kong hotel room, where we finally meet Snowden and where most of Citizenfour takes place.

The surprising thing about these jargon-filled interviews, and the rest of the film as a whole, is that there is little extra information given out. If you've paid attention to the Snowden case on a regular but not a consuming basis, then you pretty much know all the intriguing facts that Poitras puts on the screen. Instead, she has made Citizenfour one part computer-thriller, one part human interest story. Snowden states in the film that he didn't want to be the focus, that the data is story, but the film does change tones when his face does show up about thirty minutes into the film. He does make a compelling, complicated character for cinema. While Poitras does have her bias government surveillance, she doesn't present Snowden in any specific light. Hero, whistleblower, dissident, and traitor are all labels that can be used by both sides of the argument to describe Snowden. 

Here's what we do learn about the man. He's very smart. This shouldn't be a surprise, given his occupation and the way he copied thousands, maybe millions, of government files without anyone noticing. He's meticulous and thoughtful. He is someone who always has a plan, and his fear of constant surveillance shows up when his plans don't work. During an interview, the hotel's irregular fire alarm worries Snowden, as he figures the timing of such alarm may be the beginning of an attack of some sort. He's overly suspicious, almost annoyingly so. He's the man-who-knows-too-much. After viewing all the "Breaking News" CNN reports about "Leaker Edward Snowden", and after a nerving negotiating for a safe haven in China, Snowden rest his head on his hotel bed. Poitres shoots an extreme close-up of Snowden's forehead, exposing every pore. It's as if Snowden is holding the world on his head, or Poitres is trying the crack the information that is hiding in his cranium.

Snowden is Poitres' muse, and the film seems lacking when he's not around. She shows scenes of James Clapper lying to to Congress about NSA's programs, or Occupy protesters concerned over their privacy. While scenes like this create a mood, they're not completely convincing for those who aren't already convinced. This is kind of the film's problem. In a way, the film should have came out earlier, when the Snowden fever was high, or later, when the revelations become more poignant. The film is in a limbo, just like its protagonist. Citizenfour works better as a historical document that will gain weight in the future, as either a start to a revolution, or as a time when we ignored the warning signs. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Two Siblings Find Solace in Humor and Each Other in The Skeleton Twins

Milo (Bill Hader) is being yelled at by his caretaker, host, and sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig) for being last for work. After a suicide attempt, Milo goes to stay with his estranged sister, where she gets him a job with her husband. She tells Milo that he needs "to get his shit together," then screams into her couch pillow. Her frustration isn't really with her brother, but with herself, as she just impulsively slept with her scuba instructor (Boyd Hollbrook.) She hopes that people can change, and if Milo can get his life back on track, then she certainly can. Milo decides to cut the tension and distract Maggie the best way he knows: a lip-sync to Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Know."

This scene is not only my favorite musical moment of the year, but it also highlights the message and tone of the The Skeleton Twins. The film is surprisingly very heavy and somber at time. It starts off with Milo slitting his wrist in his California apartment. Thousands of miles away, Maggie is facing a hand full of pills, contemplating the same. Only does receiving a call about Milo's condition does she snap out of it and halts her attempt. 

It's moments like this that made me question what I got myself into. Then I remember that this is Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Wiig seems to be going against the obvious comedic route and instead go for starring roles which involves a woman in a mid-life crisis. This is Hader's first real stab at dramatic work, and his performance as the depressed, gay Milo shows off his range. The two definitely have the chemistry to carry the movie, even during the weaker parts of the film. There is some melodramatic declarations of family relations that push the film into TV-movie territory ("I'm your sister! I'm suppose to take care of you!" That kind of thing.)

Wiig, Hader, co-writer and director Craig Johnson, sometimes goes too far the other way. There is suppose to be the sense that Milo and Maggie share similar humor and inside jokes, but instead we get two improv geniuses. Johnson reins the two in most of the time, but you can tell that he loses control of them at time, particularly when Milo and Maggie take nitrous oxide at her office. 

This is not to say that the humor isn't appropriate for the characters. The two are interconnected souls who need each other in their life. Their close bond formed after their father's death, leaving them to fend for themselves while living with a self-centered mother. Despite their relationship, they've had little contact with each other in the last ten years, and the sum of their life without each other has totaled to disappointment. Milo moved to L.A. to be an actor, but the only jobs he get is in the food industry. Maggie married the sweet yet safe Lance (adorable Luke Wilson). Lance is best described by Milo as a "Labrador Retriever". While Lance would be the perfect husband for most people, Maggie is having an existential crisis. They say that they're trying to start a family, but Maggie is secretly taking birth control pills for two reasons: she doesn't want to have children with Lance, and she's been having rampant, hasty affairs. These hidden feelings take their toll on Maggie, which lead to her suicidal thoughts at the beginning of the film.

Maggie's secret depression adds to an curious twist to Milo's recovery. She goes about their relationship as if he's the broken one, but this is only due to the fact that his skeleton's are all laid out on the table. During his recovery in small-town New York, he tries to rekindle his relationship with his first love and former high school English teacher, Rich (Ty Burrell), a secret Milo can't reveal as Maggie was the one who got Rich fired from his teaching position long ago.

The siblings cause each other much pain and frustration, but this is only because they are so much alike. They clash only because they are cut from the same cloth. They compartmentalize their emotions so as to not disappoint each other, but they only seem to find solace when they open up.

The Skeleton Twins is much like an Alexander Payne film. It features small town people with big city dreams and the resentment that comes when these aspirations don't materialize. Still, the movie is just as sweet as it is heart-rending. These characters will drag the other out of their personal caves with fart jokes. All they need to do is get on the same page. As the song says, "Let the world around us just fall apart. Baby, we can make it if we're heart to heart." 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

"Love is Strange" Is Lovely But Could Use More Strangeness

Ben (John Lithgow) is talking to his recently wedded husband, George (Alfred Molina), on the phone. They've been together for 39 years, but just got married because of New York's new gay marriage laws. Due to an unfortunate financial situation, the two have to live in separate spaces; Ben is staying with his nephew and his family, while George is staying with two gay cops who party too much. At the dawn of their marriage and the twilight of their lives, they miss each other more than ever. Some of their yearning is caused by the fact that neither place is suitable for them. "When you live with people, you know them better than you care to," says Ben, as their relationships with their hosts start to thin.

Love is Strange is inspired by a true story of a gay teacher being fired after marrying his lifelong partner. It seems that the creators don't intend to make the film didactic, as the issue of George getting fired from a catholic high school, doesn't last for too many scenes. Instead, the story is about relationships, and how the chain reaction of George getting fired affects everyone they know. The scene described above, and particularly that line stated by Ben, showcases these intentions.

I see this as a problem, because it doesn't seem like there is much focus in the film. As we get to the end of the film, I found myself thinking that the journey we went through with Ben and George was at times fruitless. There was no real call for social justice beside one scene where George is reading a letter he wrote to the parents of the teenagers he taught. The film is only an hour and a half, so I feel like there could have been a couple of more scene to flesh out issues of anger and frustration, particularly since everyone knew at the school that George was gay, it was just the action of getting married that got George fired.

The film isn't gutsy enough about it's message, too. It says nothing strange about love. The title reminded me of Crazy, Stupid, Love: it was too heavy on the stupid and light on the crazy. I was waiting for the strange, but it never showed up. The film is just

That is not to say that Molina and Lithgow aren't completely adorable together. They seem like the most random actors to play a couple (I was actually explaining this plot to someone, and they couldn't wrap their mind around the fact that these two were gay lovers.) They will probably go do as my favorite couple of the year. There is such a relaxed tenderness between them where is feels like it has aged like fine wine. They know everything about each other, but act like they're having their one year anniversary, but it's not in a repugnant way. They're the one couple that you know that you're completely jealous of. This makes the film more bitter sweet; they don't have that many scenes together, but when they do, it's bewitching.

George and Ben isn't the only relationship seen in the film. Ben's nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows) is going through a rough patch with his wife Kate (played by Marisa Tomei, who I think has found a career playing a frazzled, modern mother.) This tension is caused by Elliot spending late nights at work, and Kate is at home with writers block. Also, Kate and Ben's socially awkward son Joey (Charlie Tahan) is developing a obsessive friendship with his friend, Vlad (Eric Tabach). This already fragile family dynamic is disrupted when Ben moves in. He shares his room with Joey and spends his days with Kate, causing little writing to be done. A lot of the movie is spent on the exchanges between Ben, Joey, and Kate, and it makes some less than interesting turns. There's a subplot about stolen, French poetry books that is puzzling and inconsequential. There too much emphasis on the melodrama, especially since the Ben and George characters seem much more interesting then their supporting personalities.

What's sad is that the film starts off as a simple, sweet depiction of an aging gay couple. In the end, co-writer and director Ira Sachs presented this gay couple as every other mainstream depiction of a gay couple. The film's sometimes harsh treatment of the characters are brightened when the idea's shine through. There is power to devotion and promise, particularly during times of tribulation. Love is Strange wasn't a picture perfect portrait, but the sometimes funny, sometimes trivial, sometimes romantic movie does have some charming brush strokes.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"The Trip to Italy" Proves that Sometimes It's About the Destination & Not the Journey

UK actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are in Italy eating their first meal of the trip. They're going on a Italian restaurant tour for The Observer, which they did four years previously in Northern England. Coogan talks about how he's surprised that The Observer wanted them to do this again, despite the good reviews of the first article they wrote about their previous trip. He notes that sequels are never as good as their predecessor, except for The Godfather: Part 2, which they both agree is the exception.

And so begins the sequel to the very meta, post-modern The Trip. The Trip to Italy features, again, Coogan and Brydon, playing themselves, albeit exaggerated and altered versions of themselves. The sequel is very much in the same spirit as the first. They travel to restaurants and hotels, eat food, and discuss life, celebrity, and the craft of acting. It's like My Dinner with Andre, but with discussions about the appreciation for Alanis Morissette and Michael Buble.

We see a little growth change in the characters since the last film. Coogan has decided that he he'd rather spend more time near his son and cancel work on his TV show to do so. Gaining fame and glory is no longer a priority. Brydon, on the other hand, who was the solid family man before, promises to be a more frisky tom cat this time around due to being out of the country where his notoriety is less distinct. It turns out that his relationship with his wife has turned cold since they've started raising their child. This sort of characterization is surprising and much needed, as they act as foils to each other, but the roles are reversed this time around.

The change of scenery is much need, too. It is absolutely beautiful. James Clarke, the cinematographer, framed and lit everything gorgeously, and to the often looked over but completely necessary location scout who picked the greatest beach locales in Italy. Not only did the setting prove to be breathtaking, but it played into the boys (I will call them "boys") conversation of artistry and death. The loose connection between all of the stops was Lord Bryon, whose debaucherous lifestyle is both admirable and cautionary. There are many motifs of the afterlife, causing the two to contemplate, causing obvious middle aged panic. A visit to the site of Pompeii not only signals a time of reflection, but results in Brydon doing his "Man in a Box" routine (and it's probably the most hilarious segment of the movie.)

The problem with The Trip to Italy is that these gags and scene go on way to long. Most of the movie is extended pop culture imitations that turn into a pissing contest between the two. They rehash their Michael Caine and their James Bond; it was all cute the first time, but this was redundant. I was bored for the first for the first half hour because it was just a repeat. They end up switching it up throughout the movie with some Robert Di Nero and Al Pacino, but I was fatigued by the end. I know that I can chalk it up to not being exactly my sense of humor, but these impersonation tirades are comparable two friends who won't let a good joke die.

The sequel was totally made for the big fans of the first, but it's a lost cause for those who opposed The Trip, or even those who kind of enjoyed the original. The spices are slightly different, but the dish is the same. It's a shame because there is an obvious self-awareness in this series. I just wish the creators could push that keen perception outwards and look through the audience's eyes. If only they followed Coogan's advice from the start and saw the folly in doing a followup.

Monday, October 13, 2014

"Boyhood" is an Epic, Slow Burning Look at Growing Up

While high school senior Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is developing his personal photographs in his high school's dark room, his photography teacher comes in and doesn't just tell him to get his ass back in class, but lectures Mason on the importance of responsibility, growing up, and passion. "Who do you want to be, Mason? What do you want to do?," he asks. When Mason says he wants to spend his life being a photographer, his teacher ultimately says that that's not gonna cut it.

Richard Linklater's Boyhood features many scenes like this. It makes sense, as the film is about growing up, and it may be the most extreme look at growth spurts, acne, personality change, and the apparent hypocrisy of adults. For those of you living under a rock, Boyhood took twelve years to make because the filmmakers got together every year to revisit Mason and his family. In the course of a little under three hours, we see Coltrane develop from a kid to a young man heading out to college. There are some recurring characters, but the four that we show up in every chapter is Mason; Mason's mom, Olivia (Paticia Arquette); Mason's sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater); and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). Throughout the movie, Mason moves through various towns, gets readjusted through various schools while his parents (they're separated, by the way) change careers and relationships.  

The changes in the film are surprisingly drastic at time, and the editing in the film is clever and signifies the passing of time. Short hair becomes shaggy hair, and there is one humorous cut where it seems like Mason has doubled in height. It brings back memories of awkward phases, and while I didn't relate to Mason so much, I felt sentimental of the growing process.

The creators pepper in pop culture to help set the movie in the appropriate year that both makes me feel joyful of the being transported to that time, and also old. "Umbrella" is playing in the background while the characters are at a bowling alley; Mason and his friends debate as to whether Yoda or General Grievous would win in a fight; Samantha watches the latest Lady Gaga video on her phone. The use of these cues are smart, because when you get out of high school, years just seem to meld together, yet we have time stamps in our heads that help us find our footing in our memories.

I wish that some of this wit also translated more into the dialogue and characters. I say this with a grain of salt because what we're dealing with here is teenage boys, and let's face it, teenage boys are dumb. I know, I was one. I was also a gay teenage boy, so I can say that I was not guilty of a lot of the drivel that I heard in grade school and in Boyhood. I think that's some of the point. This "talking shit" discourse is sadly part of male adolescence. I'll blame society, but I won't be too preachy.

The acting is questionable at times, too (I'm looking at you, Patricia Arquette.) She talks like she has a question mark stuck in the back of her throat. It kind of works because Olivia is a character who doesn't know exactly what she wants, and when she thinks she has some clarity, it backfires in her face. She is the greatest example of adults that don't have all of the answers, which is one of the film's greatest themes.

Mason is also kind of a blank character. He's not a Harry Potter, who ultimately dictates the series of actions and reactions in his life. Mason, like most children, just has to stay steady like a rock while the parents control the realty around them, whether these are good or bad decisions. This may not result in an interesting character study for some, but I enjoy the creators' honesty in the portrayal. Mason is also very much an observer in the film. He doesn't say or do much for most of the film, but his growing interest in photography and his contemplative nature shown in his late teens is logical.

Boyhood does present an easy, smooth, and subtle transformation in the characters, which I applaud the creators in doing. It would be easy to present Mason as joyful kid, then an obnoxious tween, then a rebellious teen. The whole set up of the film may seem like a lot hype, but when you have the same actors playing the same character over many years, not only do you have an epic story, but you have truthful transitions. Many people, myself included, are the same person as when we were six, only more emotionally and intellectually knowledgeable, and it's hard to capture that fact when you have multiple actors playing the same characters.     

Boyhood isn't as successful as Linkleter's other time-shifting films, his Before trilogy, which were two magical romance stories and then an aversion to them. It has been advertised as being the greatest exhibit of growing up, but it's a little to ordinary to capture that title. That is not to say that Boyhood isn't important. In the most acute way, it's drawn from the Youtube videos of people taking a picture of themselves everyday for a fixed set of time. Boyhood satisfies our need for nostalgia and narcissism, and thanks to digital filming, may be the first in a new wave of coming-of-age presentation.  

Friday, September 5, 2014

"Life Itself" Proves That You Can't Take Roger Ebert Out of the Movies

When recalling the value and importance Roger Ebert had to him for the memoir Life Itself, director Martin Scorsese instantly begins to choke up. He describes a time shortly after creating Taxi Driver where he heavily abused alcohol and cocaine. He was in a depressive state with suicidal thoughts. When Scorsese was at the lowest of the lows, he was presented a special tribute award for his years as a filmmaker by Ebert at a Toronto film festival. Scorsese's life took a turn at that point. Not only was he honored, but he was reinvigorated. "That night changed it, and it started my life again," he says, holding back the tears behind his trademark thick-rimmed glasses.

A moment like that was part of Ebert's mission. He wanted to raise awareness and champion the big, little and hidden treasures in film, and god dammit, he had opinions as to who these shiny jewels were. The director of Life Itself, Steve James, was driven by the force of Ebert. Looking back at Roger Ebert archives, he gave all of the films James directed at least a three out of four star, and even gave a perfect four to his film Hoop Dreams. It is safe to assume that Ebert and James became friends, as Ebert allowed James to document the last couple of months of his life after fighting through thyroid cancer, which caused the removal of his lower jaw, and a fractured hip. But Ebert wasn't just going to let someone have complete control of his portrayal. He tells James, "This isn't just your film," when the two argue as to what they should show. 

It is hard to tell whose voice we are hearing from in the documentary. There are direct excerpts from Ebert's autobiography, where the movie got its title, but it's hard to tell whose making the decisions. In the wake of Ebert's death, it seems that James didn't want to add anything that Ebert didn't already approve of, besides the interviews from friends, family, and colleagues. At times, it falls into a flat, almost uninspired, typical documentary fashion. There isn't any pop, which I was surprised by, since Ebert was someone who campaigned for creative and unique narrative forms. There is definitely humor in it, because Ebert was a humorous guy, but the humor comes from the characters, and not the filmmakers.

It was probably hard for James to finish the film. He wouldn't want to present a film with too distinct of a cinematic voice, but instead decided to present Ebert's voice. Also, there are difficulties to please someone whose approval carried as much weight as Roger Ebert's; Steve was probably scared to have Ebert rolling around in his grave.  

The film shows how Ebert's opinions affected his personal life, most notably with his fellow At the Movies co-star, Gene Siskel. The two were complete opposites, and half of the film focuses on their relationship. Many people watched At the Movies just to watch two film nerds verbally fight on camera about the artistic value of the new Lassie movie, and the film doesn't skimp on showing those interactions. This relationship turned out to be one of the most influential for the two despite both not wanting it to begin in the first place.    

Siskel's death due to a brain tumor, which he kept hidden from everyone beside his immediate family, shook Ebert. After this event, he dedicated to never keep secrets like that from his loved one and the public, and it's why we have this film. A lot of the film will be a repeat due to Ebert's candid nature during interviews and with his own blogging, which allowed Ebert to work even while on bed rest. At one point, after receiving numerous questions from Steve, Ebert responds back, "Isn't that somewhere in the book," almost pointing out the redundancy of the questions.

Even though some of the film is reiterations, the themes are important enough to reiterate. His relationship with his wife, Chaz, changed the man. Many say during their interview that Ebert mellowed. His blood wasn't boiling, but cooled down to a gentle simmer. Chaz is really the co-star of the film, and she carries on Ebert's legacy. The film touches on the impact Ebert had on the film and critical world, but that could really take up a whole other film. There could be long discussions as to whether it's better to be an Hollywood insider or outsider as a critic, or if Siskel and Ebert's thumb rating system hindered the field. The film wasn't really built for that, despite being totally captivating for a fellow film critic. Instead, the most impactful and touching parts come from those who really knew Ebert, proving that life isn't about your work, but about the joy, the sorrow, and the ties that make up your life.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Snowpiercer" is the "Little Engine That Could" With Axes and Machetes

The gruff looking Curtis (played by a bearded Chris Evans) counts the number of doors that separate him and the rest of the tail inhabitants from the rest of the train, the titled Snowpiercer. He figures that he has to four seconds to get through five doors in order take the train from the rest of the train's occupants who live in a life of luxury. The tail-enders are served only gelatin protein bars and must suffer through the rules and punishments dictated by those at the head of the train. The tail passengers can't just get off at the next stop, for the world has been in an inhospitable ice age for 17 years, and the people on the train are the only humans left alive. The train never stops; it just goes on a never ending loop around the world, and if the train stops, it will never start again. 

This is the set-up for futuristic, dystopian story originally created in graphic novel form by Jacques Lob  Jean-Marc Rochette and adapted for the screen by South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, making this his first English speaking film. Joon-Ho doesn't edit his East Asian influences in this film. It still contains the over-the-top blood and violence, the campy melodrama, and Joon-Ho's signature mood whiplashing humor. Joon-Ho always infuses politics in his film, and Snowpiercer containing bits of global concerns while depicting the evils of a totalitarian utilitarian philosophy. These themes are always in the background, as much more attention is paid to the action and violence. These scenes are sometimes too long, but they are brutal, quick-paced and bloody. (I mentioned the East Asian sensibility, so there are axes, spears and machetes.) The characters are always shown bruised, bleeding, or swollen eyed (and some are missing a couple of limbs!) 

This epic savageness can border on silly or even stupidity. During a dark reveal about the early months on the train caused half of the audience to gasp and the other half to laugh. (I laughed) It's because the film makes sure that there are no questions left unanswered, and in this highly imaginative setting, some of the answers just end up being beef-witted. 

Some of these feelings may radiate from the lead, Chris Evans, and this is the best acting I've seen from him which isn't saying much. I'm not an Evans hater by any means; I have given him credit for playing a highly earnest yet relatable Captain America. It's just there are many emotional moments for his Curtis that comes off flat, and it may be the dialogue, it may be Evans, or it may be a combo of the both. I was never really invested in his reluctant struggle in being the rebels' leader. 

A good thing is that Evans is backed by a talented, international cast, including Jamie Bell as Curtis's right hand man, Edgar; Octavia Spencer as Tanya, a tail-ender looking for her missing son; Song Kang-Ho and Go Ah-sung, as a drug addicted engineer and his clairvoyant daughter (and also two Joon-Ho regulars); John Hurt as the wise leader of the tail end, Gilliam; Vlad Ivanov as the relentless killer Franco the Elder; and Tilda Swinton as Mason, a head-end administrator fervently devoted to totalitarian ideals (Swinton just chews up the scene in the second craziest make-up I've seen her in this year.)

This interesting cast keeps the film chugging along as the rebels make their way up the mile long train, and it's these moments when the characters find themselves in a new train car that I enjoy the best. When they discover what they've been denied, like sushi and sunlight, you become aware of all that we as First World Americans take for granted. It's these scenes that separate Snowpiercer from the rest of the noisy, action blockbusters, and it will probably be the best action movie of the year despite the deeply questionable set-up. Snowpiercer is all about sacrifices and investigates when sacrifice is too great. When thinking about the film, I ask myself, "What could have changed to make it better?" Despite the stale, gelatin bar taste I get with the film, I wouldn't forfeit much.