Movie Review: Citizenfour (2014)

April 29, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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For a couple of months in mid-2013, my daily reporting work revolved around Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor who spilled the beans on the unfathomable level of US surveillance on its own citizens and people around the world. The story was first broken by The Guardian after Snowden contacted journalists Gleen Greenwald and MacASkill, but what few people knew at the time was that there was a documentary filmmaker, Laura Poitras, hanging around throughout the entire scandal.

Citizenfour is the product of all those hours Poitras, who won the Best Documentary Oscar for it in February, spent on the Snowden affair. Poitras was there when Snowden was hiding away at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, and captured large amounts of footage that was condensed down into some captivating interviews and conversations for the purposes of the film.

To be fair, the project pretty much fell into her lap because it was Snowden who first contacted her back in January 2013, in an exchange that formed the opening scenes of the film. She had already been working on a doco about post-9/11 government surveillance, and Snowden felt she would be the perfect candidate to record the political atomic bomb he was about to drop.

The Snowden affair has polarised the public. There are those who hail him as a hero for uncovering unconscionable conduct on the part of the US government, while others call him a traitor and want him punished for treason. Putting aside personal beliefs on what he did was right or wrong or 50 shades of grey (I have mixed emotions about it myself), Citizenfour has also polarised the public. There are those who found it absolutely compelling, while others were bored out of their minds.

I can see where both sides are coming from. I think this is a film where the viewer needs to have some level of interest in the subject, be passionate about the ideas behind it, and perhaps even know the background enough to realise how remarkable the footage is they’re seeing on screen. Those exclusive up-close-and-personal interviews and footage of Snowden are gold, and Poitras knows it. She obviously has an agenda, or else she wouldn’t have been making a doco about government surveillance, though she does a good job of letting the footage speak for itself rather than ram a political message down the audiences’ throats. By crafting the story chronologically, the narrative unveils almost like a political thriller, and the explanations are simple enough, for the most part, that viewers should be able to understand, or at least have a basic grasp of, the surveillance concepts described throughout the film.

On the other hand, if you don’t really know about the story or if government surveillance doesn’t bother you one way or another, Citizenfour could come across as a bit of a drag. There are typed conversations re-enacted on computer screens, which rarely works in fictional movies, and long conversations about technical things and legal ramifications. Even if they recognise that it is a well-made film about an important topic, audiences could find sitting through all the court hearings toward the end too much to handle.

For me, the interest came less from the topic and more about the subject, Snowden himself. From the moment his identity became public, Snowden has been written about ad nauseam, but this film offers the first real opportunity for people to decide for themselves what kind of person he is. And honestly, I think the film confirms my suspicions that there’s just something off about the guy. He’s clearly intelligent and articulate, and I don’t doubt he believes what he is doing is right, though Snowden does come across as someone with a messiah complex that’s not too far off from the vibe of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. You just have to wonder about his motivations when you know he had the foresight to contact a documentary filmmaker months before he knew the whole thing would blow up.

Having said that, I like him a lot more now after having watched John Oliver’s recent interview of him in Moscow (the Snowden section begins from about the 13:40 mark).

Anyway, Citizenfour is a film everyone should see because of what it is about, but Poitras has not made it a film for everyone. While I acknowledge its importance, the skilful filmmaking, and marvel at the footage of Snowden the film managed to capture, Citizenfour was a relative disappointment for me, especially given all the critical accolades and the fact that it was regarded by the Academy as the best doco of 2014. I never found it boring like some others have, but the film was not quite as fascinating or as thrilling as I had hoped it would be. Perhaps the Oliver Stone dramatization currently in the works, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden and Melissa Leo as Poitras, will be able to bridge the shortfalls.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Still Alice (2014)

February 23, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Note: Getting this review in just before they announce Best Actress at the Oscars!

I was in the mood to be depressed, so I went head and watched Still Alice, a sobering drama about a renowned linguistics professor’s battle with early onset Alzheimer’s.

It’s a respectable take on the illness that doesn’t go the whole way in capturing the worst the disease, preferring to leave its titular character with her dignity in tact. In that sense, Still Alice isn’t as quite as heartbreaking as I braced myself for (I had the Kleenex ready and everything), though the film surprised me with its gripping depiction of Alice’s family members and the way each of them reacts to the devastating news.

Based on the novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, Still Alice begins with Dr Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) celebrating her 50th birthday. With a successful career, a loving husband and three fully grown children, there’s not much more she could ask for.

But of course, the signs of the illness soon begin to manifest, randomly, sporadically, and with varying degrees of seriousness. Co-sreenwriters and directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland — along with Moore in perhaps the best performance of her stellar career — do a solid job of conveying the initial shock and confusion from the onset of the symptoms. From a forgotten word here or a misplaced item there and getting gradually shittier at Words with Friends (I enjoyed this especially), to getting lost in what should be a familiar place, the trio manage to capture the angst as well as the physical disorientation through the use of camera panning and blurred backgrounds.

Moore’s deteriorating appearance is also used to match her crumbling mind. In the beginning I remarked on how amazing she looks for a 50 year old (54 in real life), though as the film progressed she grew increasingly lined and disheveled — though let’s face it, still pretty good for a 5o-year-old Academic who squeezed out three children.

It was a clever idea to make the subject of the illness a top linguistics professor who appeared to have everything, allowing the contrast ensuing from her illness to be even more stark. It’s bad enough for ordinary people, but for someone for whom words and language are her pride and define who she is, the blow must be incomprehensible. I know some will whine about how lucky Alice is to have money and family support compared to others suffering the disease, though it’s not the movie’s fault that it can only focus on one story.

I knew Moore was in it and is a favourite for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars, but I had no idea there were so many big stars in it. Alec Baldwin delivers a controlled, layered performance as Alice’s husband John, a brilliant researcher in his own right who struggles to deal with not only his wife’s deteriorating mental capacity but also the impact on his own career. The way he deals with losing he woman he has loved for so long, especially her losing perhaps the biggest reason for his love — her sharp mind and fierce career ambitions — is truly heart wrenching in more ways than one.

Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish (from Weeds) play Alice’s three children, each of whom reacts differently to the diagnosis. Stewart, who gets the meatiest role of the three, is especially good, displaying a tenderness and non-constipated demeanour I thought I would never see again after “The Saga”. But to her credit, she has proven that there is life after Twilight.

The main complaint I can make against the movie is that it plays out too conventionally, pretty much the way I anticipated a movie about Alzheimer’s to go. The film alludes to how bad things will eventually get, but spares us the pain of actually seeing it. Maintaining the dignity of sufferers and reminding us that she is “still Alice” no matter what, appears to be a priority. Some will applaud the sensitivity of the approach, while others will say it sanitises reality. Everyone will have an opinion on how it affects the film, though it is undeniable that it would could have been edgier had it dared to venture a little further from expectations.

And for all the great depiction of Alice’s family, the film did very little to look at how her relationship evolved with her friends. In fact, I don’t even remember her having any friends at all.

It is not an easy movie to watch, and it’s hard to call it an enjoyable experience. If it’s superb performances and depressingly gripping drama you’re after, however, it’s hard to go past Still Alice. The script is perhaps too conventional for the film to be something truly special, but Moore’s performance elevates it far above what it would otherwise have been.

3.5 stars out of 5

Last Minute 2015 Oscar Predictions

February 22, 2015 in Entertainment, Misc, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Crap. Can’t believe the Oscars are going to be on in less than 10 hours. Fortunately, I’ve now seen all the Best Picture nominees and almost all of the films in the major categories. So without further ado, here’s who I think will win and who I think should win. By the way, I have not been following the buzz and betting odds.

Best Picture:
Nominees: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
Prediction: Birdman
Should win: Boyhood

Best Actor:
Nominees: Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Michael Keaton (Birdman), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
Prediction: Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Should win: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

Best Actress:
Nominees: Marion Cottilard (Two Days, One Night), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), Reese Witherspoon (Wild)
Prediction: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Should win: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Best Supporting Actor
Nominees: Robert Duvall (The Judge), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood), Edward Norton (Birdman), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), JK Simmons (Whiplash)
Prediction: JK Simmons (Whiplash)
Should win: JK Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Supporting Actress
Nominees: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Laura Dern (Wild), Kiera Knightley (The Imitation Game), Emma Stone (Birdman), Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)
Prediction: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Should win: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best Director
Nominees: 
Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman), Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)
Prediction: 
Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman)
Should win: 
Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Best Original Screenplay
Nominees: Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, Grand Budapest Hotel, Nightcrawler
Prediction:
Birdman
Should win:
 Boyhood

Best Adapted Screenplay
Nominees:
American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Inherent Vice, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash 
Prediction:
Whiplash
Should win:
The Imitation Game

Best Animated Feature
Nominees: Big Hero 6, The Boxtrolls, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Song of the Sea, The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Prediction:
Big Hero 6
Should win: Big Hero 6

Cinematography
Nominees:
Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ida Mr Turner, Unbroken
Prediction:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: 
The Grand Budapest Hotel

Costume Design
Nominees:
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inherent Vice, Into the Woods, Maleficent, Mr Turner
Prediction:
Into the Woods
Should win: 
Maleficent

Documentary Feature
Nominees: CitizenFour, Finding Vivian Maier, Last Days in Vietnam, The Salt of the Earth, Virunga
Prediction: CitizenFour
Should win: Finding Vivian Maier

Documentary Short
Nominees:
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, Joanna, Our Curse, The Reaper, White Earth
Prediction:
White Earth
Should win:
No idea

Editing
Nominees:
American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Whiplash
Prediction: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: Boyhood

Foreign Language Film
Nominees:
Ida, Leviathan, Tangerines, Timbuktu, Wild Tales
Prediction:
Leviathan
Should win:
No idea

Makeup and Hair
Nominees:
Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy
Prediction: 
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: 
Guardians of the Galaxy

Best Original Score
Nominees:
The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Interstellar, Mr Turner, The Theory of Everything
Prediction:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win:
The Theory of Everything

Best Original Song
Nominees:
Everything is Awesome (The Lego Movie), Glory (Selma), Grateful (Beyond the Lights), I’m Not Gonna MIss You (Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me), Lost Stars (Begin Again)
Prediction:
Glory (Sela)
Should win: 
Everything is Awesome (The Lego Movie)

Production Design
Nominees: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Interstellar, Into the Woods, Mr Turner
Prediction: 
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win:
Interstellar

Sound Editing
Nominees:
America Sniper, Birdman, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Interstellar, Unbroken
Prediction:
American Sniper
Should win:
Interstellar

Sound Mixing
Nominees:
American Sniper, Birdman, Interstellar, Unbroken, Whiplash
Prediction:
Whiplash
Should win:
Whiplash

Visual Effects
Nominees:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, X-Men: Days of Future Past
Prediction:
Interstellar
Should win:
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Short Film (Animated)
Nominees:
The Bigger Picture, The Dam Keeper, Feast, Me and My Moulton, A Single Life
Prediction:
The Dam Keeper
Should win:
No idea

Short Film (Live Action)
Nominees:
Aya, Boogaloo and Graham, Butter Lamp, Parvaneh, The Phone Call
Prediction:
Aya
Should win:
No idea

Movie Review: Serena (2014)

February 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The first two times Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper collaborated on a film (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) the results were spectacular, earning the duo three Oscar nominations and a win. Their third joint effort, unfortunately, is a huge misstep for everyone involved.

Set in 1930s America, Serena focuses on a young logging businessman played by Bradley Cooper, who becomes enchanted by a beautiful young blonde. The titular Serena is not just some trophy wife either, as she proves herself to be a strong, intelligent and astute woman who doubles as a valuable business partner.

That’s about as much as I can divulge about the plot without spoilers, because the biggest problem with the film is that I’m not even sure how to describe it. Is it a drama? A romance? A thriller? A Western?! All or none of the above?

The frustrating thing about Serena is that I couldn’t figure out where it was going or what it was trying to achieve. The first half or so felt like it was simply going through the motions while trying to set something up down the track, though the twists in the plot end up coming across as somewhat random and surprising in a WTF way. So after all that, this is what the movie’s about? Maybe I missed all the clues and subtle hints along the way, but it felt like I had been watching a completely different film when it suddenly decided to go off the rails.

The script was adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name by Ron Rash, which, from what I have read, differs significantly from the film. I had a feeling that might have been the case because it’s obvious there’s much about the movie that didn’t turn out the way it was envisioned.

The performances were good, but you already knew that was the case with two top-class actors at the peak of their powers. The problem is that Bradley’s character is an unlikable, spineless schmuck who generates no empathy or sympathy, while Lawrence is miscast as the blonde bombshell. Her youth worked to her advantage in both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but here her babyfaced sweetness doesn’t match the tragedy-hardened demeanour her character demands.

The supporting cast also features some impressive names such as Toby Jones, who sleepwalks through the thankless role of the local sheriff, and chameleon Rhys Ifans, who plays a bizarre logger with an unexplored past and personality.

On the whole, Serena fizzles by failing to provide its A-class actors with roles suited to their strengths or a coherent script with a clear direction. The result is a strange and unsatisfactory experience that will leave many viewers scratching their heads wondering how such a quality production could have gone so wrong.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Wild (2014)

February 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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It’s apparently a coincidence that Wild shares a similar name and plot to one of my favourite movies of all time, 2007’s Into the Wild. In both films, the protagonist ventures on a solo expedition into the harsh wilderness that doubles as a journey of self discovery and personal realisation.

And so my impression of Wild could have gone one of two ways — I knew I would have either loved because it features the same strengths as Into the Wild, or hated it for being basically a shittier female version of the same story.

Fortunately, it was the former. While it’s true that Wild does have the same raw (wo)man-vs-wild feel and natural beauty of Into the Wild, it’s actually a very different movie with a very different journey.

Reece Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a woman who decides to embark on the arduous Pacific Crest Trail, a 1,000-plus-mile hike across the country. But she’s not a hiking enthusiast and has zero experience or developed survival skills to cope with the unforgiving weather that will make your skin burn and crack, the brutal terrain that will make your feet bleed, and the dangers of wild animals and creeps lurking at every corner. So the question is: why? Why the heck would anyone torture themselves by taking on a challenge like this?

Answering that question is what Wild sets out to do. It’s not a neatly wrapped answer either, but one that fits together like pieces of a complex puzzle. These pieces are unveiled one at a time through Nick Hornby’s remarkable script, which eschews screenwriting conventions by relying heavily on flashbacks to tell Cheryl’s story.

One of the first lessons I learned in screenwriting class is to avoid using too many flashbacks, which tend to draw audiences away from the immediacy of the present. In Wild, however, about half the narrative is told through short bursts of Cheryl’s past, from her childhood all the way to just before she commences her journey — all in non-linear fashion. They work here by presenting a shocking contrast between various stages of her life and helping us understand why she felt it was necessary for her to persist with what she set out to achieve.

The constant throughout Cheryl’s life is her mother Bobbi, played with a subtle strength and inner beauty by Laura Dern, who earned a deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination alongside Witherspoon’s second Best Actress nod (after she won it for Walk the Line). Witherspoon reportedly had no make up on for the vast majority of the movie, but to be honest I didn’t think it was a big deal because celebrities these days take such good care of themselves that she looks better than most people her age even at what’s supposed to be her very worst.

Into the Wild is about a young man’s ideals and learning about what it means to be alive, whereas Wild is about a slightly more mature woman seeking to rediscover who she is. Rather than hopes and dreams, it’s about dealing with pain, loss and regret, though the message is ultimately an uplifting one. It isn’t quite as edgy as I’ve made it sound, and it didn’t — for whatever reason — have the same level of resonance for me as Into the Wild, but Wild is still a highly engaging and moving drama elevated by two of the year’s best performances.

4.25 stars out of 5

 
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