Monday, November 24, 2014

Citizenfour (****)

Directed by Laura Poitras


Citizenfour is less of a nuts and bolts documentary and more of a political thriller. It's edited for optimum suspense and even frames itself with protagonists. Those protagonists are American journalist Glenn Greenwald and controversial NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden is now an notorious expatriate living in Russia hiding away from strict government action for his role in exposing the National Security Agency's blatant exploitation of the general public's privacy. Director Laura Poitras - a filmmaker who states at the beginning of this film that her probing documentaries about post 9/11 America have already placed her on watch by certain government entities - gets unrestricted access to Snowden here, and Citizenfour is a nerve-wrecking documentation of the meticulous preparation that Snowden and Greenwald take in revealing this shocking information to the American people. We are shown a brazen Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room giving out dangerous details to Greenwald about unlawful NSA activity but as the film progresses, we see Snowden grow more sheepish with reality that the pressure he knew would fall on his head is far more reaching than even he was prepared for. The film's damning evidence of the American government's illegal activity takes a back seat to the drama of Snowden and Greenwald, who themselves end up becoming the faces of another institution's controversy.

Rosewater (***)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Jon Stewart


Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is one of the most beloved pop culture institutions in America, and one of my own personal favorites. So yes, I went into Rosewater very much wanting it to be good, if only because I respect Jon Stewart so much. I state my biases at the start, so you can take what you will with the fact that I found his film Rosewater to be a profound documentation of totalitarian authority and one man's fight to stay hopeful in the face of psychological torture. We've seen this kind of movie before. Midnight Express essentially blueprinted the contemporary prison torture movie, but what Stewart does here - with the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist held erroneously in solitary confinement for five months - is surprising. He does not fill the film with despair and anguish, he does not want you to learn from Bahari's torture. He is more interested in Bahari's spirit, and his ability to stay true to his ideals even as his surroundings become more and more bleak, even as the promise of ever seeing his pregnant wife again become smaller and smaller. Rosewater is not a hard, brutal drama, but a warm tribute to a man who faced a regime's inhuman protocol and kept his humanity in tact.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Foxcatcher (**)

Directed by Bennett Miller


Anyone unfamiliar with the John du Pont-Schultz brothers story should take this fair warning: this review contains spoilers.

Bennett Miller is an actor's director, unafraid to let his leading men (and so far, it has always been men) take the spotlight. His movies seem to lack a singular voice, and in the case of his second film, Moneyball, the movie's star (Brad Pitt) probably had more to do with the finished product than he did. His third film is Foxcatcher, a chilly true story about an eccentric rich man and his obsession with competitive wrestling. The movie is closer to the detached iciness of Miller's first film, Capote, which starred Philip Seymour Hoffman in an Oscar-winning performance as the famed author researching his masterpiece, In Cold Blood. Both Capote and Foxcatcher deal with a crime, but cannot be called, necessarily, a crime film. They're both too preoccupied with biography to really be all too exciting of a thriller. With Capote, you had Hoffman's uncanny performance, which went beyond the simple mimicry of most Hollywood biopics and became a fascinating portrait of disintegration. In a lot of ways, Foxcatcher is trying to accomplish the same thing, but it doesn't have the kind of electrical performance on the caliber of Hoffman's work. Miller is trying hard here to form allusions to the terrors of capitalism and the contrast between high and low society. But to what end? Foxcatcher speaks loudly, but doesn't seem to correspond anything meaningful to its audience, and for all that Miller is trying here, he still expects the actors to do most of the heavy lifting.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Interstellar (***1/2)

Directed by Christopher Nolan


Those who may have a distaste for Chris Nolan's movies may dislike his redundant narratives, his over-reliance on pathos as a motivating tool, his high-class manipulation no doubt helped by a lucrative partnership with music composer Hans Zimmer; but no other Hollywood filmmaker has a grander sense of scale, nor is their anyone else making American movies today that has an imagination as vast as the ego it takes to visualize it. He has the ambitions of Kubrick, even if he is more relenting as a storyteller. He also has the Spielberg-ian urge to play for emotion, even if he doesn't always earn it. But if I sit here and say that Nolan is not quite Kubrick and not quite Spielberg, I'll also admit that he has set himself up as one of the singular voices in commercial filmmaking today. Finally free from the constraints that the Dark Knight trilogy placed upon him, Nolan can now focus on furthering the reach of the stories he wants to tell. None of his movies prior to Interstellar ever came close to what this film aspires to. 2010's Inception was made on a grand scale as well, and that film was a masterclass in mainstream suspense thrillers, perhaps the best one we've seen this decade. Interstellar doesn't have quite the same compressing, suffocating feeling that was so crucial to Inception's success - where Inception is a film that keeps moving inward, Interstellar keeps moving outward. Interstellar makes up the difference with pure spectacle, a cinematic journey into space exploration unlike any we've seen in a good long while.

Big Hero 6 (***)

Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams


If we're to believe that Disney Animation Studios is going through a renewed spurt of creative output, a run of films that can compete with their overachieving little brother, Pixar, than what does it mean that Big Hero 6 is, essentially, a glorified action movie? What does it mean that it's best moments are just amalgams of other, better films? Does it matter at all if the movie is incredibly, almost intoxicatingly fun? Probably not. But movies made by Disney are no longer graded on a curve. With the release of last year's Frozen, Disney Animation showed that it could once again make substantial cinema and delivered on the promise of Wreck-It-Ralph the year before. It helps that this period coincides with an uncharacteristic down period for Pixar films in which they've made exactly zero interesting movies since the summer of 2012 in Brave, and haven't had anything great since Up in 2009. It was probably unrealistic to expect Pixar to sustain the greatness they displayed during the Aughts, and it was probably even more unrealistic now that their two best directors, Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird, seem to be more interested at this point in live action. But back to Big Hero 6. Is it okay that it's mindless entertainment? That it's sweetness is contrived and occasionally overbearing? I say no. But it speaks to the improvement of the studio that these questions now have to be asked.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Theory of Everything (***)

Directed by James Marsh


If you're unaware of some of the details of the marriage of Stephen and Jane Hawking, this review will likely contain a few spoilers.

James Marsh is a commendable documentary filmmaker. His Man On Wire won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2008, mostly because it understood that the film's star, Phillippe Petit, was the sole focus. With The Theory of Everything, Marsh tackles the assembly line Oscar sub-genre of the biopic. His subject is the brilliant, disabled physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane. Marsh's treatment of Hawking's story is sweet and tender, but told without complication. While telling the story of the man who wrote A Brief History of Time, Marsh blazes through long passages in Stephen and Jane's story so that all we really get is a brief history of a marriage. The Hawking story comes with inherent drama, with Stephen's affliction of ALS at a very young age. We all have the image of Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair, his shoulders contorted and his face dragging slightly to the side. The Theory of Everything is also the story of Stephen's slow, arduous journey from an able-bodied physics student to the chair-bound, computer-voiced man we know today. But Marsh does well never to truly victimize Stephen Hawking, and that is the film's best quality; it knows that Stephen Hawking had a hell of a life in more ways than one.

The Book of Life (***)

Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez


Films as close to a cultural heritage as The Book of Life is run the risk of becoming overtly self-serious history lessons, especially when you consider that the main audience draw for this film is children. So I can't help but admit that I prepared for the worst when I saw that the framing device for The Book of Life was a museum guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) giving an impromptu history lesson to a group of wrong-side-of-the-road children about Dia de los Muertos (or The Day of the Dead). But this film is more clever than it seems at first. Produced by Guillermo Del Toro, the film's affection for Mexican culture and history is endearing instead of overwhelming. It incorporates Dia de los Muertos imagery into its animation style and incorporates grotesque imagery without scaring the children away (consult The Boxtrolls from earlier this year to see where something like this can go wrong). As the guide begins to tell the story of The Book of Life to the young children, she begins explaining the tale of two childhood friends, Manolo and Joaquin, who do everything together and are even in love with the same girl, Maria. When Maria's poor behavior convinces her father to send her to live with nuns, Manolo and Joaquin decide to wait patiently for her return, where she'll decide which of the two she really loves.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Force Majeure (***)

Written and Directed by Ruben Ostlund


A movie like Force Majeure puts the audience in a pretty precarious position. Like the American film Compliance from 2012, Majeure presents us with a situation and we watch as a character makes a split decision that effects several people. We'd like to think if we were put in the same situation, we'd do the right thing, but movies like Force Majeure put us face-to-face with the reality that perhaps we are not the heroes we'd like to think of ourselves as. The movie is directed by Ruben Ostlund, and the film has been chosen as Sweden's submission to the Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language Film award. I can understand why. It seems to be a great representation of Swedish filmmaking: modest but striking, harsh but funny. The talons of the country's most important film director, Ingmar Bergman, are all over this particular film. The shots are expertly framed but completely without movement, all of the space is flat, each image creating it's own still frame unto itself. But the core of Force Majeure is the conflict between in its characters. In this case, we have a married couple with two young children trying to enjoy a vacation at a skiing resort in the French Alps. Things are already on the fritz between the two parents, but a single moment tips their sour feelings over the edge.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Nightcrawler (****)

Written and Directed by Dan Gilroy


Nightcrawler accomplishes what few films can: to create a heightened reality that is also effected by the reality of day-to-day life. It's a scathing look at local news journalism, but it's mostly an eerie character study of a dangerous sociopath who sees his pathway to success. The film is written and directed by Dan Gilroy, brother of John Gilroy, a veteran Hollywood editor, and Tony Gilroy, an accomplished screenwriter and director of the superb Michael Clayton. Both Tony and Dan kicked the can for closed to a decade as for-hire scripters; Tony wrote the original Bourne trilogy, while Dan wrote films like 2006's The Fall and the sentimental Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots movie Real Steel. Tony's first directorial effort was Clayton and now Nightcrawler is Dan's. I mention this to make clear that Dan Gilroy is far from a first-time filmmaker. He's a 55-year-old career movie man who knows how to tell a story, and even better, he knows how to show us that story. So, similar to Michael Clayton, and some of Michael Mann's best films, Nightcrawler is not only entertaining, but a display of expert filmmaking, the culmination of a life's work. A film both polished and gritty, which will ask you to suspend disbelief while presenting shocking scenarios that don't feel to far from the truth.