Movie Review: Citizenfour (2014)

April 29, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


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: Les Misérables (2012)

January 31, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


I’m sorry, but Les Misérables is overrated. Or perhaps more accurately, it just wasn’t for me.

Director Tom Hooper, coming off his 2011 Oscars triumph with The King’s Speech, appeared to have a winner on his hands. One of the most beloved musicals of all-time. The likable singing and dancing Hugh Jackman as the protagonist Jean Valjean. Probably the hottest actress on the planet right now, Anne Hathaway, to play poor Fantine and sing the classic “I Dreamed a Dream.” Amanda Seyfried. Russell Crowe. Even Helena Bonham Carter and Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen). It was a sure hit and an Oscar certainty.

But Les Misérables ended up getting mixed reviews from critics, and I find myself siding with those who didn’t fall for its charm. Those who love the musical will love this film no matter what, but I  personally found it to be an exhausting and often dull experience that I couldn’t really get into until it was almost over. Technically, the film is supposedly quite a remarkable achievement, with spectacular sets, strong performances and a lot of long single takes and live singing (rather than recorded in post-production like most other musicals). But really, who cares about all of that if the film isn’t any good in the end?

I had never seen a stage production of the musical so I’ll assume there are others who aren’t familiar with the plot. The story is set in 1815 and Jackman’s Valjean is a thief who is paroled by Crowe’s ruthless prison guard Javert after years of imprisonment. Basically, Valjean decides to turn his life around and be a good guy and Javert can’t seem to let go of the past. It’s a miserable time to be alive (hence the title) and the remainder of the film focuses on the struggles of the masses, Jackman trying to be good, and Crowe not letting him. It goes on for years and years.

The biggest problem with Les Misérables is that 99.9% of all vocal interactions between characters is sung. There is essentially no dialogue except a stray word here or there. As a result, we get a lot of long singing monologues where we have to listen really carefully to the lyrics (which is not always clear) just to figure out what the heck is going on.

That can get annoying and takes time to get used to, but fine, it’s a musical, so I get that. What bothered me more was that most of this talk-singing was awful to listen to. Not that the actors’ voices were bad — it’s just that there’s no real tune or melody. It just sounds like a bunch of people playing a lame game where they have to sing everything and are making up the tune as they go along. It’s really monotonous and challenges the audience not to tune out, so to speak, after a little while.

Yes, there is a handful of REAL musical numbers that are pretty good, with Hathaway’s much-lauded “I Dreamed a Dream” number being the highlight, as well as Carter and Borat’s “Master of the House” (which I was familiar with through that Seinfeld episode with Elaine’s dad and Jerry’s inside-out coat), but these are few and far in between. The vast majority of the film was dominated by this crappy talk-singing or sing-talking and I just could not stand it.

The performances were good, I’ll admit that, but was Hathaway’s performance really that good? Oscar-favourite good? I personally think it’s a little overrated, especially considering (spoiler alert!)  she only has a few minutes of screen time. Then again, Judi Dench won for something like 9 minutes of acting in Shakespeare in Love, so why the heck not?

I do, on the other hand, have to defend Russell Crowe a little bit here. Crowe has been panned for his singing, but I thought he was perfectly adequate. A little wooden, perhaps, but he’s freaking Pavarotti compared to Pierce Brosnan in Mama Mia.

Anyway, Les Misérables turned out to be a huge disappointment. It probably would have been great as a stage show, and Hooper has basically shot an extravagant stage show on film, but that’s why we have different media formats. I finally got into the story and the characters towards the latter part of the film’s third act, but by then it was too little too late.

2 stars out of 5

PS: Dang, the trailer made the film look so awesome. If only it really was.

Movie Review: Life of Pie (3D IMAX) (2012)

November 27, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

Yann Martel’s Man Booker-winning Life of Pi is one of my favourite novels of all-time, and so I was both excited and apprehensive when I heard that it was finally released as a movie more than 10 years after it was originally published.

One of the reasons why the film took so long to adapt from the 2001 novel is because filmmakers deemed it unadaptable and unfilmable, which was certainly the way I felt when I finished reading it. But if anyone could pull it off, it would be Oscar winner Ang Lee, one of the most skilled directors of his generation.

And so I’m glad to say that the film version of Life of Pi is a huge success. While it doesn’t quite make me believe in God, as the story’s protagonist suggests, it is probably as good as it could have ever been given the inherent difficulties in bringing this wonderful tale to life.

The adapted screenplay by Oscar nominee David Magee (Finding Neverland) turned out to be surprisingly faithful to the novel (as far as I can remember anyway). Told through the voice of the titular character, it tells the story of a young Indian boy who becomes stranded on a life boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger.

The first problem, of course, is making the situation believable within its own context. The second is employing special effects that support authenticity. And the third, and possibly biggest obstacle, is to make a 2-hour film interesting when most of it is dominated by a single human character and a mostly-CGI animal incapable of dialogue.

To Lee’s credit, he overcomes all three problems with ease, or at least it feels that way. Lee’s Life of Pi comes across as a kind of surreal fable recounted by a skilled storyteller, enabling it to feel both genuine and fantastical. The special effects are seamless (Lee says his experience on the underrated Hulk made it possible) and I certainly could not tell when the tiger was real or animated. As for keeping the story interesting, Lee does so by lengthening the on-land introduction (though not unnecessarily so — it sets up the characters and the remainder of the film nicely) and by changing things up constantly so there is not a lot of repetition when they are at sea.

The performance of Suraj Sharma as the teenage Pi is remarkable, especially considering that it’s the teenage student’s first film. He didn’t have to do it alone but he carries the film through its toughest stretches and remained convincing all the way until the very end.

Some have criticised the film’s preachiness about god/religion and its ending, but both of these things come straight from the novel. Personally, the ending was one thing about the novel that I truly loved, and I’m glad Lee decided to keep it in, though I question his decision to rely on strictly verbal storytelling as opposed to utilizing the visual. I can’t say much more without giving things away so I’ll stop there.

Granted, there are times when the film felt a little like a prettier version of Castaway (the one with a skinny Tom Hanks and “Wilsoooooon!”) and the story occasionally felt trapped in that little lifeboat, but on the whole Life of Pi is an enchanting, poetic and visually stunning experience that’s also unexpectedly moving and thought-provoking — even for someone who has read the book. Going in, I thought I’d appreciate the film’s aesthetics and technical achievements more than anything else, but I was pleasantly surprised by the emotive storytelling and engrossing drama.

4.25 stars out of 5

PS: That said, I’m still not sold on the 3D, which despite my numerous vows I ended up paying extra for again — I thought only the introductory sequence with the animals, and maybe a few of the underwater scenes, were really enhanced by the 3D; the rest seemed perfectly fine in 2D to me. The extra large screen and superior sound from IMAX, on the other hand, was probably worth it.

PPS: I wonder what kind of film it would have been had M Night Shyamalan adapted and directed it, as rumoured earlier. That’s not bagging Mr Airbender — I’m genuinely wondering.

Movie Review: The Help (2011)

April 1, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Even before I saw The Help I knew it was going to be a polarising film.  While some called it the best film of the year, I had also heard that the film was accused of trying to ‘glamorise’ what some African-American maids had to go through during the Civil Rights era of the early 1960s.  I can’t say I know enough about it or history to make any sort of meaningful comment on that, so instead I simply approached the film as a piece of entertainment.  And as such, I would say The Help worked on most levels, even though it didn’t blow me away like it did for many others.

The Help, based on the book of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, is about Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young white journalist who decides to write a book from the point of view of black maids as they work for their white bosses and look after their white children. Skeeter herself was more or less raised by a black maid, and unlike many of her peers, such as the insufferable Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), sees them as people rather than something a lot less. Two of the maids central to the story are Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), who are both initially reluctant to help Skeeter with her book for obvious reasons but eventually take it in their stride.

I guess it’s easy to view The Help as a “good white person saves black people” kind of movie, because to some extent, it is. Skeeter is so obviously “good” and characters like Hilly are so obviously “bad” — there’s really no middle ground. As a result, I can see why some people felt the film was trying too hard to skew audiences in one direction, as Hollywood films often tend to do.

However, what prevents it from being more than merely a melodramatic feel-good movie aimed at making white people feel better about themselves are the awesome performances from Davis and Spencer, both of whom received worthy Oscar nominations. Spencer, who won the best support actress gong, was especially brilliant and stole the show as the outspoken Minny.  By making the film more about these extremely strong black characters rather than Skeeter, The Help ended up being a lot more entertaining and touching than I initially expected, without making me feel like I was being over-manipulated.

Also unexpectedly good was fellow best supporting actress nominee Jessica Chastain, playing the outcast Celia, who gave the film a different dimension with her affable naivete and sweetness. This is the type of film that would have been a complete flop had it not been for the strong ensemble cast. Full credit has to go to director and screenwriter Tate Taylor (who adapted the book) for eliciting such solid performances and penning an adaptation that utilises humour so well. Yes, although it tackles some serious themes, The Help comes across as generally quite light-hearted and contains plenty of funny moments.

At the end of the day, while it does oversimplify the situation a little (or a lot, depending on your point of view), I found The Help to be an entertaining feel-good film that generated exactly the type of emotions I expected it would. It’s not perfect and it’s not the type of film that usually appeals to me, but I think it’s a little unfair that the film is being criticised for not being certain things when it probably never intended to be those things in the first place.

3.5 stars out of 5!

Next Year’s Best Picture Oscar Frontrunner

March 9, 2011 in Blogging, Entertainment, Misc

Trailer courtesy of Jimmy Kimmel Live.

I would so pay to see this film.