Saturday, September 24, 2016


 2.5 / 5 

How could this happen?  How could a filmmaker as passionate, sometimes even lunatic, as Oliver Stone have taken the tale of Edward Snowden and turned it not into a deeply paranoid thriller but instead an overlong, over-talky and moderately dull recitation of the facts?

Even the mere facts of Edward Snowden's story should make compelling cinema.  In fact, they already did in the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, which is a better movie not simply for its veracity but for its straightforwardness.  Citizenfour tells us what happened, and Stone's Snowden shows us what happened, but it never gets to the heart of exactly why and what it means.

In part, that's because Stone is not offering up any whacked-out conspiracy theories like he did in JFK or being as deliriously passionate as he was in Platoon, he barely even seems worked up about the revelations Snowden made about government surveillance of American citizens.

Strangely, we're not even all that worked up about it; after the initial flurry of coverage, outrage has given way to -- what? -- resignation?  Simple apathy?  Snowden should be full of righteous fury, but there's none.  It should be fueled by tinfoil-hat-wearing paranoia, but there's virtually none of that.  At one point, Snowden, having made up his mind to blow the whistle on the government, tells his girlfriend that her phone and maybe their house is bugged.  The most enthusiasm he can muster is to take her on to the patio.

Remember those great 1970s films in which the guy who thinks the government is going to kill us all suddenly realizes that everyone around him is suspicious?  As a society, we became so deeply fearful of the government, of everything we once believed was safe and secure, that the fear infused our popular culture.

So, how come there's none of that palpable sensation in Snowden?  After all, it's a movie based not on a wild conspiracy theory but a proven fact that our government has been spying on us.  But in the hands of Stone, who co-wrote the long-winded screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald, Snowden is little more than a recounting of a lot of unnecessary backstory.  There's a long sequence that shows how Snowden trained to be in the Army but broke his legs and ended up in the hospital, which is where he went on an online dating site, which is where he met a woman and told her that he was a deeply conservative patriot who believed his country could do no wrong, but she was a liberal -- and at that point, I started losing a lot of interest in Snowden.

As the movie follows Snowden into the CIA, where he isn't just smart but maybe the smartest guy anyone has ever seen, it detours into a long and ultimately extraneous story about how Snowden wanted to be a more active agent but developed a distaste for it after he found out the government could gather almost any sort of data on anyone anywhere.

This is where Snowden gets really problematic, because it never once places into doubt Snowden's near-sainthood, nor does it delve particularly deeply into his suspicion and paranoia.  It just dutifully dramatizes the stories we've heard before, that Snowden himself told in Citizenfour.  It is, in fact, a strange thing to see a big-budget film that is essentially a dramatic re-enactment of a highly publicized documentary.

Despite its simplicity and lack of any real perspective, Snowden coasts into near respectability thanks to a compelling central performance by Joseph Gordon Levitt, who is always an interesting actor and here manages to flatten both his voice and his usual exuberance to create a version of Snowden who somehow can be simultaneously intense and practically asleep.  Levitt captures the same sort of hangdog look that we've come to know from the real-life figure, who's never really exuded a deep charisma.

The rest of the cast mostly flounders with desperately underwritten characters.  Shailene Woodley is Snowden's stand-by-your-man girlfriend, while a strangely unrecognizable Rhys Ifans is the embodiment of sinister, secretive government, both mentor and antagonist to Snowden as the script sees fit.

He's not a very good villain, but the only other choice Snowden had was to make everyone the bad guy, to pit an unknown CIA analyst against everybody and everything, but that would have required the kind of energy, passion and paranoia that Snowden just can't seem to muster.  Which makes me a little worried -- if Oliver Stone can't get us frightened, angry and bewildered at the discoveries Snowden made, who can?

Viewed Sept. 23, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Kubo and the Two Strings"

 5 / 5 

Have we gotten so accustomed to simplicity in animation that the complexity of Kubo and the Two Strings is such a surprise?

We've grown used to animated films with princesses and sidekicks and moments in which the heroine states explicitly what's on her mind (back in the '90s, when this was fresh, it was called the "I Want Song"), that the very existence of Kubo and the Two Strings is a little miracle.  It's a big-budget film released by a major studio, but it both expects and requires it audience to pay attention.  That's more than you can say about almost all mainstream, live-action films anymore.

It's the most complex, thoughtful film I've seen in a summer that has included the complex and thoughtful Hell or High Water, and it's certainly the most emotionally surprising and honest film I've seen all year.  On top of all of that, Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the most visually majestic movies anyone will ever see, a wonder of stop-motion animation made with overwhelming artistry, which extends to its exquisite musical score.

It begins with a storm at sea as Kubo (Art Parkinson) narrates his own story, telling how his mother took a great risk to keep him safe from her jealous, vengeful family, including the Moon King, Kubo's loathsome grandfather, who stole the boy's left eye and desperately wants the other.

Gruesome?  Yes, but that's only the beginning.  The grandfather and the mother's two wraithlike sisters killed Kubo's father.  Kubo's mother keeps him safe high on a mountain overlooking a small village in ancient Japan.  She has a sad, far-away look in her eyes, and has sacrificed so much for Kubo that she seems to hardly be able to move.

During the day, Kubo takes his magical three-stringed shamisen and a stack of origami paper and entertains the villagers with tall tales that the paper brings to life when he plucks the strings of his instrument.

But Kubo must be back by sunset.  It is the only way his mother can keep him safe.  But Kubo, like all great heroes, is curious, and when he hears of a life outside the one he knows, he wants to see what it is like.  He stays out too late -- and, indeed, the evil aunts swoop down from the skies to find him.

That begins an epic quest as Kubo searches for the legendary suit of armor that can keep him safe and help him vanquish his evil family.  Like Dorothy in Oz, he meets three strangers along the way who help him: A snow monkey who seems to have sprung to life from a charm Kubo's mother gave him, a wordless little paper samurai, and a giant half-man half-beetle.

The monkey (Charlize Theron) seems to know much about Kubo, but the beetle (Matthew McConaughey) has lost his memory.  They search for the armor together, in a grand quest through snowy mountains, forbidding forests, unknown caverns and onto a mysterious lake.

Never predictable nor boring, but frequently surprisingly quiet and thoughtful, Kubo and the Two Strings is a grand adventure, a blend of The Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter that excels at finding the intersection of action and emotion.

If it has a fault, it's only that it's so densely plotted its story may be overwhelming, yet how can that be a quibble when it's such a literate, intelligent and inventive adventure, one that ends not with a tangible reward but an emotional one: Instead of learning the importance of a simple emotion like love or bravery, Kubo is taught the importance of the memory of the dead, the power of the past to sway the future, and the complex relationships we have with people we love, even after they're gone.

Only toward the end of the film does Kubo reveal the meaning of the two strings in its title.  The moment is a powerful one, a revelation both of plot and of character, yet it has such careful nuance that it leaves room for interpretation.  Kubo and the Two Strings is the rare film, whether for children or adults, that keeps you thinking, and talking, about its intentions long after its final, beautiful frame.

Viewed Sept. 18, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, September 11, 2016


 3 / 5 

I saw Clint Eastwood's Sully on Sept. 11, and just an hour or so before heading to the theater I had been watching an as-it-happened rebroadcast of the Today show's coverage of the terror attacks.  The fear and dread were almost as real as they were 15 years ago as the images of United 175 hitting the South Tower were replayed and replayed and replayed as the newscasters and the world struggled to comprehend what they had seen.

Similar images, created with digital visual effects, are front and center in the first few minutes of Sully, and they drive home two points about the movie: First, like last year's The Walk, it's about 9/11 without directly being about 9/11.  Second, it's very, very difficult to make a movie about a plane flight that lasted 3 minutes, 28 seconds.  Even at just slightly more than an hour and a half, including credits, Sully feels padded, particularly in its first half.

That's when Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger -- played by Tom Hanks in a role that seems custom-made but a few decades too late for Jimmy Stewart -- bolts up in bed, hyperventilating with with movie-perfect night terrors as he dreams about what could have gone wrong with the airplane he was piloting on Jan. 15, 2009.

US Airways Flight 1579 landed in the Hudson River and all 155 people aboard survived, facts that anyone going to see Sully will probably know.  (Then again, given that some people thought The Martian was based on a true story, maybe some people won't.)  The facts are simple: The flight took off from La Guardia airport, ran into a flock of geese, lost power and ended up in the river three minutes later.

The sheer brevity of its central narrative means that Sully can't rely on only the flight itself for drama; it has to find a narrative hook that can sustain an additional 90 minutes of story, and the one it settles for also lacks drama: It revolves around the follow-up NTSB investigation into the events on board the airplane, leading to questions about whether Sully and his first officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) really did the best they could.

The NTSB investigators are painted as mustache-twirling villains, while Sully implies that the final hearing into the flight happened within days of the incident, when in fact it came nearly six months later, and it's pretty likely that the investigators were, like Sully himself, just doing their jobs.

Director Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki also try, without success, to build some dramatic tension around Sully's home life, with his wife, played blandly by a surprisingly ineffective Laura Linney.  She laments that they might not be able to pay the bills if Sully doesn't start flying again soon.  All of her scenes are cutaways of her on the phone with Hanks, and at one point Linney resorts to biting her fingernails as she tries to find some urgency.

So, Sully has about as hard a time getting airborne as the airplane itself -- but finally has much more success, though, ironically, only briefly.  The scenes on board the plane are harrowing and well-crafted, and the shots of the stricken aircraft descending over upper Manhattan are convincing.  The landing is a white-knuckler, and will have anyone who sees Sully paying a little more attention to the pre-flight safety briefings next time they fly.

Its latter half works about as well as its first half doesn't, but, lacking anything more to say once the hearings are done, the movie comes to an abrupt ending.  We're left to sort out for ourselves why Eastwood thought that Sullenberger's brief, but undeniably heroic, flight was important enough to turn into a feature film.

Fifteen years after 9/11, I think, he wants Sully be an antidote to the depression we still feel around that day and everything that came after it -- it's about an airplane that flew over Manhattan and didn't strike the towers, didn't kill thousands of people, didn't lead to a pervasive sense of gloom and disillusionment that still won't go away.

"Sully" Sullenberger is the hero we lacked on 9/11, the one we hoped we'd find amid the ruins.  He's the guy who took an impossible situation and made it all right.  "No one dies today," says an anonymous rescue worker as one of the passengers is plucked from the freezing Hudson.  It's a needless line, trying a little too hard to drive home the point Sully is trying to make.

Last year, Robert Zemeckis directed The Walk, an extraordinary movie about the World Trade Center that both was and wasn't about 9/11.  It was about the innocence and wide-eyed wonder we seem to have lost on that day, an ode to the towers, a story about a man's determination to do something impossible in the skies over New York City.  Sully is, in some ways, a spiritual companion to The Walk, given that it won't directly address the issue most on its mind, but Sully's metaphor is as clunky as The Walk's was graceful.

Sully goes so far as to show pictures of the airplane smashing into buildings as Sully dreams about the calamity he prevented.  He did a heroic thing, that "Sully" Sullenberger, with his equally heroic co-pilot right by his side, aided by heroic flight attendants and even heroic passengers.  What it all meant, why it all mattered, are the things that Sully never quite articulates.  It's not a bad film at all, and thanks to Eastwood, it's never unwatchable.  But it never manages to do much more than show us what happened and hail Sully as a hero for his quick thinking in the air.

When it's the skies and in the water, Sully soars; on land, I'm afraid it crashes.

Viewed Sept. 11, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Thursday, September 1, 2016

"Southside With You"

 3 / 5 

The most important question to ask about Southside With You, the only legitimate question, really, is whether it would be a good movie if its leading characters were Jane and John Doe, not Michelle and Barack Obama.

The answer is yes, mostly.  It's a sweet and romantic film, which owes more than a little of its existence to Richard Linklater's Before movies.  It pays careful attention to the rhythms of how two people who don't know each other meet and fall in love, why almost every meeting and date is forgotten except the one on which you meet the person you'll decide you want to spend your life with.

It begins on the afternoon of a hot Chicago summer day in 1989 and ends late that night, when Michelle Robinson agrees to meet the twenty-something law student who she mentors at the high-priced law firm where she works.  His name is Barack Obama, and she assures her mother and father that he is nice and smart and handsome and black.  Meanwhile, he assures his grandmother that Michelle is tall and smart and black.

As an opening, it's weak, and for a movie that's not even 90 minutes long, Southside With You spends too much time worrying that it will be seen as a biography and not as a fictional romantic fantasia on the lives of two people who came to influence (I think it's safe to say without hyperbole) the entire world.

But Southside With You presents them as people: He's a loquacious, magnetic, sly chain-smoker, she's something more of a cipher as the movie begins, and maybe even as it ends, though it's she who turns out to be the main character, not him.  She is dubious of him, and recoils at the suggestion that they are on a date, though he has carefully manipulated the afternoon to maximize the time he spends with her.

The movie shows us nothing at all of their lives outside of this afternoon, and virtually nothing of them apart from the time they spend with each other.  This could be why the movie is so reluctant to begin -- it is impossible, especially the way they are portrayed by Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers, to think of them as something other than who they will become.

But this is both the movie's strongest and weakest suit.  There are times it uses our knowledge as a storytelling crutch, and others when writer-director Richard Tanne appears to feel obligated to mention biographical facts that waste time and don't add anything to the story of these two people.  It doesn't want to be a biography, but it can't avoid the fact that it is, and it's in the bumpy first 20 minutes or so that its very nature is a liability.

Then there's a crucial scene of Barack talking to a group of neighbors about the troubles of their southside neighborhood and the impossible bureaucracy they face to try to get a community center built.  This is when Southside With You springs to life.  In a sharply written speech, beautifully delivered by Sawyers, Barack crystallizes the philosophy for which he'll become known: that nothing about government is easy or nice, that there are perspectives and beliefs other than your own, that the only answer to "no" is, he believes, to "carry on."

The speech is a wonderful moment, but it's also where the film pivots perfectly.  If Michelle was doubtful, he convinces her to think about him differently.  They begin to talk about their philosophies, their ambitions and even, in one other remarkably written and acted scene, her doubts about the choices she's made.

Both Sawyers and Sumpter achieve something special, evoking their well-known real-life counterparts (he bears a striking resemblance to the president) without turning them into caricatures.  The easiest recent comparisons are Josh Brolin as George W. Bush and either Frank Langella or Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon -- and Sawyers surpasses them.  His easy-going but intense and insistent Obama captures the intangible spark that made him irresistible to half of the country while irritating the rest.

Yet none of that matters, including Sumpter's less flashy but no less integral portrayal of Michelle, unless we care about the characters, and Southside With You manages to make us do that by remaining, at its core, a romance.  Its main characters barely know each other when the film opens but care deeply about each other just a few hours later, and the film makes that believable and charming.  You leave the film wanting to know what happens next -- even though, of course, you do.

Is there reason to doubt the film's sincerity, to wonder if it's some sort of political tool?  Maybe it is -- just as Oliver Stone's W. in 2008, Southside With You comes just as the president is leaving office, when we're beginning to think about his legacy.

The interesting thing about Southside With You is that if it's a political film, it assiduously avoids politics.  It takes a polarizing president and humanizes him, turns him into a minor hero, and I suppose, given where we are in the 21st century, having a president who anyone thinks is both heroic and admirable is worth acknowledging.

Southside With You is more concerned with Barack Obama's humanity -- in its story of how he came to win over a dubious, anxious and uncertain woman, it wins us over, too -- than it is about his politics.

The most politically charged statement Southside With You makes is the one it doesn't: Could anyone make a movie this endearing, this sweet, this romantic about Hillary Clinton?  Or, let's be honest, about Donald Trump?

Viewed Sept. 1, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks