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: Manny (2014)

February 2, 2015 in Boxing, Movie Reviews, Reviews, Sport

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Considering what great material the filmmakers had to work with, Manny, the new documentary on eight-weight-class Filipino world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, should have been a sure-fire KO. Instead of delivering the haymakers fans would have loved to see, however, the film ended up pulling its punches all the way through, resulting in a thoroughly unsatisfying experience that barely scratches the surface of both the man and the sport.

On its face, Manny ticks all the right boxes for a sports documentary. A poor Filipino kid from the gutter is forced to box from a young age to put food on the family table, and in the process develops a talent and ferocity that would take him to the very top of the sport. Amid the career highs (such as his superstar-making pummeling of Oscar de la Hoya in 2008) and lows (his KO loss to Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012, for instance) there are celebrity interviews and “rare” public and behind-the-scenes footage, all with the familiar voice of Liam Neeson narrating the script.

But despite an explosive start highlighting Pacquiao’s knockout loss to Marquez, Manny soon settles into conventional documentary mode and begins to skim over the stuff that would have made the film fascinating. It touches on all the things we already know about Pacquiao’s life outside of his major fights — the humble beginnings, the rise through the weight ranks, the movies and singing that came with the stardom, the foray into politics, and the apparent “religious awakening” he would experience a few years ago — but without ever getting to the “good stuff” simmering beneath the surface.

Yes, it was cool to see highlights of his training and big fights — Barrera, Morales, De la Hoya, Hatton, Cotto, Margarito, Marquez — in high definition, and it was fun to see celebrities like Mark Wahlberg, Jeremy Piven and Jimmy Kimmel talk about him, but all of these things felt superficial.

I wanted to see more footage of Manny’s daily life; I wanted to hear more about the dirty business of boxing and the disputes between his promoter Top Rank and Golden Boy; I wanted to hear about all the venomous groupies that feed of his money and all the cash he literally gives away; I wanted more depth on Manny’s dark side — the gambling and the drinking and the womanizing. It would be unfair to say the film completely ignores these issues, though it barely takes more than a jab at them. The approach by directors Leon Gast (who won the Oscar for the Ali documentary When We Were Kings) and Ryan Moore was to just touch upon all the touchy things and gloss over them quickly before moving onto the more positive aspects of Manny’s existence.

The best parts of the movie are when we see people close to Manny talk about him, from adviser Michael Koncz and ex-conditioning coach Alex Ariza to his long-time coach Freddie Roach and promoter Bob Arum. The bits with the most emotion actually all involve Pacquiao’s wife Jinkee, the only person who appears to be giving it to the viewers straight. But unfortunately, these flashes of genuine insight into Pacquiao are few and far between.

Perhaps it’s because I already know too much about Pacquiao for Manny to teach me anything new. To be honest, even the 24/7 documentaries produced by HBO before each Pacquiao fight offer more about he subject than this documentary. I just think the film would have been so much more interesting had it dared to venture deeper into things such as Alex Ariza’s unceremonious dumping from Pacquiao’s team and the subsequent feud he developed with Roach and Koncz (not discussed at all), questioning how and what really caused the negotiations with Floyd Mayweather Jr to break down multiple times (nothing apart from a couple of clips anyone could have dug up on YouTube), and some sort of definitive statement about all the allegations of performance enhancing drugs (the elephant in the room).

Even the chronological depiction of Pacquiao’s career missed important chunks. Although the footage is out there, the film ignores Pacquiao’s earlier losses before Morales and his world title fights at the lighter weight class, and completely skips his less inspiring bouts against Joshua Clottey and Shane Mosley. I know it’s hard to follow every bout of Pacquiao’s long career, but pretending that some important events of his life don’t even exist makes me question the filmmakers’ objectivity and decision-making.

At the end of the day, Manny is a film that’s more hagiography than documentary. It feels like it has been made by the same people who follow Pacquiao around all day telling him how great he is (they’re what netizens described as “Pactards”). Pacquiao is an interesting, charismatic sportsman who deserves a better biography than what he got here, and this was never more apparent when listening him spew out the awkward lines they wrote for him at the end of the movie.

Having said all that, Manny remains in a position to succeed because of Pacquiao’s immense popularity and fortunate timing — as the long-awaited showdown between him and Mayweather appears to be  getting somewhere at last. Maybe after they finally do fight each other someone else can make a more compelling documentary that can do Manny Pacquaio justice.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Blackfish (2013)

January 21, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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OK, so the whale is a mammal, but that doesn’t change the fact that Blackfish, a documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is one of the best documentaries — scratch that — one of the best films, of 2013, and really should have been nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the upcoming Academy Awards. Last year I was deeply angered after watching The Invisible War, about sexual assault in the US military; this year I was mesmerized and traumatized by Blackfish, a cautionary tale on the dangers of keeping killer whales in captivity for the sake of entertainment.

The film focuses on the killer whale Tilikum, an orca that has been in captivity for 30 years and is still held in SeaWorld Orlando, where he performs daily. Even though this is a documentary, it’s still best to go into it knowing as little as possible, so I won’t go into the orca’s history as it would spoil some of the revelations in this film, which unfold masterfully thanks to a well-written script. The documentary is powered by a series of interviews with former SeaWorld trainers and people who worked at the now-defunct Canadian Sealand, where Tilikum once resided, as well as testimonials from whale experts, catchers and the like. There is also a lot of excellent footage of the whales, including their capture, training and performance videos, making this feel like a very complete documentary with no major missing pieces.

The central argument running through Blackfish is that whales are fiercely intelligent, highly evolved and emotional creatures that should not be held in captivity, and if you do, you are doing it at your own peril. The film paints orcas as animals with humanistic emotions, and argues — in a skillful and non-manipulative way — that holding them against their will in dark, tiny tanks for most of their lives (sometimes under substandard care), starving them to train them to perform tricks, separating their offspring from them, and allowing them to be subjected to abuse from other whales, is deeply inhumane and immoral. It is no wonder why some experts say that it makes the whales psychotic and turns them into ticking time bombs, and it’s hard to blame them when they eventually lash out out of frustration.

It is a film that is difficult to watch at times for so many reasons. It breaks your heart watching the whales howl in agony when they are separated from their family, when they are being “treated” by staff, or when you see the bullied calves battered and bloodied by their larger peers. It’s also agonizing watching the brutal attacks of the whales on their trainers, knowing that there is little anyone can do to save them from the jaws of these 5,000kg+ beasts. It can get really emotional watching the interviews of the trainers who worked with the whales, not to mention the loved ones of those trainers who lost their lives because of their jobs. And of course, it can be infuriating listening to the SeaWorld reps spinning their PR stories. I found myself going through a roller coaster ride of emotions during this film and was almost moved to tears several times.

The subject of the film is interesting enough, but Cowperthwaite should also be commended for her filmmaking, which can often be understated for documentaries. Blackfish is an engrossing work that ticks all the right boxes — it serves an important purpose by bringing someone to our attention that we might not have otherwise been aware of, it tells a story in an interesting and captivating way, it’s entertaining, and it is capable of stirring up your emotions.

I remember going to SeaWord (I think it was in Hong Kong) as a kid and being wowed by the experience, and drinking the SeaWorld kool aid which suggests to us that the whales love what they do and have wonderful relationships with their trainers. Blackfish argues that this could not be further from the truth.

Having said all that, I should point out that Blackfish does have its fair share of critics, who argue that the film distorts the facts and completely ignores the positive work that SeaWorld does (including rescuing animals before freeing them and donating millions to conservation and research). One interviewee said he believes his interviews were seldom used for the film because what he said, which is largely in support of SeaWord, did not fit in with the filmmakers’ agenda. And let’s be honest, Cowperthwaite clearly did have an agenda — but then again, so do all documentary films — and it’s hard to deny that she did a great job in promoting it. However, it should also be noted that not all the claims are against SeaWord (it’s more a general critique of the industry and past practices), and most importantly, SeaWorld repeatedly turned down opportunities to be interviewed for the film, and therefore opportunities to state their side of the story.

Regardless of what you think about holding whales in captivity for the sake of entertaining people at theme parks, one thing is for sure if you watch Blackfish: you will never look at theme parks such as SeaWorld in the same light again. I urge everyone to watch this brilliant documentary, read up about both sides of the story, and decide for yourself.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Dyatlov Pass Incident (2013)

January 20, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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In the winter of 1959, a team of nine experienced hikers ventured into the northern Ural mountains in Russia on an expedition. Days later, they were all dead. Soviet investigators found that the hikers tore their tent open from the inside and ran out into the -30 degrees Celsius temperatures in socks and bare feet. While there were no signs of struggle, two of the bodies had fractured skulls and two had broken ribs, though there were no signs of external trauma. Another was missing her tongue. Oh, and there were traces of radiation found on some of the bodies. With no rational explanation for the bizarre deaths, investigators concluded that the hikers perished from “a compelling natural force”, and the mystery became to be known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident.

More than 50 years later, a UK-Russian production decided to make a film about the incident, with famed filmmaker Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, Deep Blue Sea) signed on as director. Instead of making this a movie about what happened during the incident itself at the time, however, the producers decided to make a modern “found footage” movie about a bunch of American college students who decide to make a film of themselves retracing the steps of the fateful hikers.

The result is a mixed bag. As a low budget movie with no-name actors and a director still reeling from The Long Kiss Goodnight in 1996, The Dyatlov Pass Incident is actually quite clever, entertaining and occasionally frightening — relatively speaking. Renny Harlin still has some tricks in his bag and knows how to create tension and scares that don’t keep relying on the same tactics.

Much of the intrigue, however, stems from the crazy mystery itself and the script’s creative take on what happened to the hikers, which is not bad given that none of the theories (from avalanches to Yetis to aliens to secret military weapon tests) have been accepted as foolproof. I won’t give away what this film speculates, though all I will say is that it is fresh and no less stupid than what’s already out there.

On the other hand, the decision to turn this into yet another lame found footage flick in my opinion backfired by making the movie less real and authentic. What it means is that we have to deal with the wobbly cameras (though not as bad as in some films), the irrational reasons to “push on” with their expedition despite massive warning signs, and forcing the characters to hold on to their cameras when they are running for their lives. It makes the film campy and silly. We’ve seen so many of these attempts since The Blair Witch Project that this approach mostly annoys and irritates rather than create more tension, and it’s baffling why studios keep doing it.

The acting from the cast, especially the five American students, also leaves a lot to be desired. They just aren’t very likable or believable, and we just can’t wait for them to do meet their inevitable gruesome end. Part of that is the fault of the script, which is solid from a big picture perspective but doesn’t do much for the characters. The low budget also means the special effects are fairly poor and often look video gamey (and as a result they had to utilise a lot of darkened shots).

On the whole, The Dyatlov Pass Incident feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity because it is such an intriguing mystery. With a more conventional format (as opposed to found footage), a bigger budget, more bankable stars and some tweaks to the finer aspects of the script, this could have been a great film. At best, it’s a surprisingly entertaining DVD rental or on-demand flick (which is how I watched it), and I suppose that’s not a bad thing given its humble ambitions.

3.25 stars out of 5

PS: The film is titled in some regions as Devil’s Pass, which is generic and completely uninteresting, whereas its original title, The Dyatlov Pass Incident, is far more intriguing. The stupid poster for Devil’s Pass also has a naked woman with her back turned to the camera, which also makes no sense if you’ve seen the film. Go figure.

PPS: Trailer below, though I should warn that there are major spoilers from about the 1 minute mark. Never ceases to amaze me how trailers like to ruin everything.

PPPS: If you are interested in reading more about the incident, including the most prevalent theories, check out the links below.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyatlov_Pass_incident

http://mysteriousuniverse.org/2012/01/mountain-of-the-dead-the-dyatlov-pass-incident/

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2401175/Dyatlov-Pass-Indicent-slaughtered-hikers-Siberias-Death-Mountain-1959.html

http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/dyatlov-pass-incident-strangest-unsolved-mystery

http://amnationalistcouncil.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/the-dyatlov-pass-mystery-solved/

Movie Review: Linsanity (2013)

January 19, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I too was caught up in all the Linsanity madness as much as anyone else when it started in February 2012 (actually, probably more so because I was writing about it every day for work). A Taiwanese-American underdog in the NBA, and a Harvard graduate, no less, who had been undrafted, sent to the D-League multiple times and was about to be cut for a third (and probably final) time before a miraculous string of record-breaking performances made him the biggest headline in New York, and later, the whole world. It was a story too good to be true, and everyone absolutely loved it.

And therefore it came as no surprise that someone decided to make a documentary about the phenomenon that has come to be known as Linsanity. The impressive thing about this film, however, is that director Evan Jackson Leong decided to make the film when Lin was still a student at Harvard, well before he became a household name.

The narrative follows Lin from his childhood days when he displayed incredible talenting playing AAU ball with his brothers, then onto his highly successful high school career before landing a spot at Harvard because no Div 1 school would offer him a scholarship. After leading Harvard to one of their best seasons ever, Lin had ambitions of being selected in the NBA draft, revealing that he believed his best chance was being picked by the Knicks in the second round (he “crushed” that workout, in his words). Of course, he missed out on getting selected completely, but was fortunate to be invited the Mavs’ summer league, where he went toe to toe with No. 1 pick John Wall. He then signed with the local Golden State Warriors, and the rest is pretty much general knowledge.

Anyway, I did enjoy it, but I must admit I liked the subject a lot more than the film itself. Linsanity, as it turns out, is a fairly run of the mill documentary where the drama and excitement is nearly entirely attributable to the true story itself as opposed to the filmmaking. I had expected to see a lot more exclusive footage and interviews, as well as a deeper look into Lin’s personality and especially his well-publicized religious beliefs. Instead, I was treated to a huge chunk of well-edited game footage, though a lot of it — mainly the college and NBA highlights — I had already seen before in the actual games or on YouTube.

To be fair, there is some interesting stuff in the film, such as the interview with Lin’s parents and brothers, and especially listening to his father explain how the family got into basketball in the first place. The portion of the film dedicated to Lin’s lowest point, when he was sent to the cutthroat D-League, is perhaps the most insightful part of the 88-minute running time. But to be honest, if you know Jeremy Lin’s story pretty well like I do, it’s likely you’re not going to get a whole lot out of this documentary. The subjects you know are going to be tackled — like the discrimination, the racism, the taunting, being repeatedly overlooked, etc — are all broached as expected, but there really wasn’t anything I hadn’t already seen or read elsewhere. That’s when more exclusive interviews, or even just a fresher approach, would have been welcome. I kept waiting for some revelatory comment from Lin, his family, friends, teammates or enemies, or even just a new angle on things, but it was all ended up being relatively tame and cliched.

The film also skimped on the awkward end of Linsanity, when Lin’s knee injury ruled him out of the team for the remainder of the season and the fact that he later copped flak for not playing because he was not 100%. The subsequent controversial contract negotiation with the Knicks, which turned ugly and essentially forced him to Houston as a free agent, was essentially overlooked. I know that is not the glamorous side of Lin’s story but it’s an important one that should have received more attention.

Nearly a year after Linsanity came and went, and with Lin now just a “regular” starter in Houston, Linsanity doesn’t quite have the effect and impact it would have back had it been released a year or so earlier. On the other hand, one could argue that the film comes too close after Lin’s success, and it would have been better to wait even longer, maybe another year or two, to be able to properly reflect on what an amazing time it was.

At the end of the day, Linsanity is an entertaining film because it is about one of the most extraordinary underdog stories in sports history. Even if you’ve seen it all before, you’d be crazy not to get pumped up all over again by rewatching some of Lin’s greatest moments during his incredible run. That said, I suspect it is a film that is most suited for audiences who have only a faint idea of Linsanity; for people who know the story well, there isn’t a lot of new things to see or learn, and the documentary filmmaking is just too typical and sanitized to give Lin’s story that extra edge it deserves.

3.25 stars out of 5