Friday, September 23, 2016


Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven is a rare sight: the straightforward all-star Hollywood Western. That alone is almost enough to make it fun, as the film gets down to business fulfilling every basic core comfort its designation promises. That it is also a glossy high-budget big studio movie that’s slickly competent, highly efficient, uncomplicated, completely confident in its easy genre pleasures and totally solid in its narrative drive heightens the fun. This is an energetic, red-blooded action movie leaning hard into a Wild West fantasy of righteous violence, in which gunplay and good intentions are enough to win the day. Fuqua has made a career out of movies about violent men – Training Day, King Arthur, Shooter, Southpaw. Here, though, the violence is pure sensation above all else, satisfying and enjoyably expressive. Remaking John Sturges’ sturdy 1960 Western, itself inspired by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, he tells a firm, old-fashioned oater in amped-up and appealing 2016 style.

The setup is familiar. A small frontier town is beset by an evil robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard, who all but twirls his mustache as the slimy villain). The narcissistic land-grabber is determined to run the townsfolk from the place, the better for him to expand his mine and get richer. He shoots some of them and burns their church to the ground, throwing in the insult-to-injury offer of $20 each if they skedaddle. Obviously this doesn’t sit well with the kindly townspeople, so a freshly widowed young woman (Haley Bennett) heads out to find the help they need to fight back. The first chunk of the movie is devoted to her search, introducing a grand total of seven men willing to lend a hand and a weapon to this noble cause. The next chunk involves the posse wrangling up a plan. Finally, there’s the big blowout gunfight as rounds of ammunition blast back and forth in creatively staged bouts of battle. There’s no surprise to the outline, but that’s to the film’s credit. The fun is in the reliable old narrative working again, and in the fine, unfussy character work that fills in the details.

It helps that the lead hero is Denzel Washington, as great a hero as we could hope for. Here he fits the wide-brimmed cowboy hat that shadows his tough-but-kind eyes in mystery. He sits in the saddle or struts down the dusty street with the complete and total moral and physical self-confidence with which he’s become synonymous. He plays a marshal roaming the west hunting bad guys. Of course he’s willing to help a nice little town defeat their wannabe corporate despot. (Co-writers Richard The Expendables 2 Wenk and Nic True Detective Pizzolatto’s chewy dialogue gives the villain a speech up top where he explicitly conflates profit with patriotism.) Of course he’s also driven by revenge, as we eventually learn his own sad reason to hate the man. But because he’s Denzel we have all the faith in the world that he’s on the side of truth and good, lassoing a diverse group of misfits into following his lead and rescuing this town from its looming doom.

In the extended, explosive and violent finale, Washington, seemingly without effort, slides off the saddle and hangs on the side, using the horse as cover while firing at baddies, then jumps back up and gets off another perfect shot as the horse rears back. I wanted to applaud. He’s that cool. The rest of his gang are an enjoyable bunch as well, and the movie’s smart not to load them down with intergroup conflict or subplots about grudges or romances. It’s lean, and straight to the point, allowing the invited actors to have fun with Western types while bringing the personality required of them. There’s Ethan Hawke as a doubting sharpshooter, Byung-hun Lee as an expert bladesman (styled like Lee Van Cleef), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as a Mexican bandit, Martin Sensmeier as a Native American archer, and best is Vincent D’Onofrio as a burly mountain man he plays with a funny, soulful high-pitched roughness. Bringing the total to seven is Chris Pratt in another of his slanted Harrison Ford impressions, bringing a sly grin and unexpected/expected dusting of goofiness to his quips. Within the first second they appear, we quickly know who they are, what they’re good at, and how the action will rely on them.

Though Fuqua amps up the speed, volume, and violence in his Magnificent Seven, stripping away all but the essential story beats and drawing the character’s distinctions quickly in broad strokes, he still knows how to provide what a Western needs to really get cooking. He lets the downtime breathe with an awareness of just how long it takes to gallop from one place to another. When Washington and crew stroll into town, after doing battle with crooked deputies (including Cam Gigandet), they tell the worried citizens they have a week to prepare – three days for the stooges to ride back to the boss, a day for them to plan, and three days for their army of deplorables to ride back armed to the teeth. Add to that the time spent putting their own group and plan together, and that leaves a lot of good quality time with the pistols, buttes, baked beans, campfires, church meetings, poker games, and swinging saloon doors that sell the genre setting between High Noon shootouts.

Fuqua knows the long setup earns a sharp and cleverly staged crescendo of action. My favorite bit, outside of Washington’s cool horse stunt, was a scowling baddie gunned down falling back into an empty open coffin outside the coroner’s. But Fuqua, with his frequent cinematographer Mauro Fiore, also makes the violence with some attention to horror. This won’t end with all seven standing, and the townspeople really are outgunned. Shots of terrified children huddled in a basement, or farmers nervously clutching rifles under cover as bullets rattle by, are welcome splashes of perspective in a movie that’s otherwise shooting for the iconic with cowboys astride faithful steeds silhouetted against the sunrise and dastardly villains squaring off against those whose purity of intention should win in the end. It’s this balance – Movie Stars and character actors; brilliant iconography and intimations of humanity – that make for a compelling, enjoyable, and satisfying entertainment beginning to end.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Thirteen Ways of Looking at CAMERAPERSON

Cameraperson is singular. It’s a complicated and entrancing autobiography built out of footage from other nonfiction films. What we see and hear becomes a reconfiguring of what it means to see and hear a film, the various sequences united only by the vision they represent. As a movie about vision – about what we see, about what filmmakers’ choose to show, about how these sights affect those who create and those who view – there’s a multitude of vantage points one can take to begin to make sense of it.

Here are a few.

1. It’s a movie as memoir. The cameraperson in question is Kirsten Johnson, cinematographer and camera operator on dozens of documentary projects over the past 20 years. In making this movie, she has collected and compiled shots and scenes from her career, placing them together, not chronologically but in some intuitive memory logic. Individually they are compelling, fascinating, carrying the intellectual charge that brought the documentary crew to capture them in the first place. But there’s a larger goal at work. We see moments that have, as she writes, “marked” her and “leave me wondering still.” Slowly, she adds personal footage, of her mother and father and children. Together they add up to a portrait of a woman’s professional and personal life. There is no narration. There is little explanatory text beyond a brief note at the beginning telling us to take the following as memoir. We’re to view her in every frame. She is her occupation.

2. It’s a movie about the woman behind the curtain. But it doesn’t pull the curtain back or peek behind. She simply wants us to be aware of the person there.

3. It’s a movie about work. We can get swept up in stories, people, and vivid tableaus presented, but there’s always the understanding Johnson is behind the camera. The film is a procession of images and sequences, artful and intense, by turns emotional and clinical. But unlike their sources, here there is new awareness placed on the hard work of their making. It draws attention to the labor involved. What does a cameraperson do? She gets the shots. She crafts the images. (One moment shows her hand dart in front of the lens to pluck an errant clump of grass from distracting.) By showing us the process through this context, she makes it clear we see what we see because she decides we could. The movie features little in the way of looks behind the scenes. What it does show us is what’s in the frame – and implies what’s outside the frame – in the margins of the original works. Fleeting moments reveal the personality behind the camera through a gasp, an command, an admission of emotional investment, a worried concern, and hushed indications of found profundity.

4. It’s a movie as clip reel, a portfolio. This is no diminishment, because this is no That’s Entertainment! comprehensive overview or utilitarian résumé. We’re not seeing greatest hits or notable outtakes. We’re seeing moments. Through the scope of the projects presented, as well as the diversity of subjects tackled, one can see the expertise Johnson brings to each film on which she works. There’s a casual beauty to the way she takes in landscapes and architecture, and an acute sensitivity to the emotions of her interviews. Whatever it is, she throws herself into getting a good shot. She races along next to philosopher Jacques Derrida down a street, trips walking backwards in front of The New Yorker’s cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, listens with empathy to a devastating story from a child injured in an I.E.D. explosion (telling him she’s deeply moved). It’s a movie of considerable skill, aptitude in every shot, a testament to her talents.

5. It’s a movie of poetry, knowledgeably and thoughtfully assembled. The details are precise, sharply drawn, well observed. Its tapestry assembles slowly, deliberately, and patiently. What are we to make of the connections between projects with disparate topics? Reading the surface you could see a simple travelogue (Afghanistan, Alabama, Bosnia, Brooklyn, Nigeria…) or a look at the varieties of modern documentary concerns (hot-button politics, shameful tragedies, quirky character studies). Or you could look closer, get beneath the tenuous and obvious strands, and see an interconnected web of sensitive emotional connections and endless possibility for interpretation. Recurring ideas of parents, children, emotional and literal violence, and the aftermath of trauma (one haunting montage includes empty buildings and fields where atrocities have taken place) are both specific and symbolic. It feels like a carefully composed ode to her career, its meaning in the world, and impact on her soul.

6. (It’s a movie of fonts. Here is where I must point out Johnson’s incredible attention to detail extends to the typefaces. I didn’t think of this on my own. Read Charlie Lyne in Filmmaker Magazine with a brilliant dissection here.)

7. It’s a movie as an invitation to think. Johnson doesn’t want a passive viewer. No, by recontextualizing her past work in this new form she invites a focus on why a shot was made, and on why we’re seeing it now. She wants your intellectual involvement, not to take in and feel and react passively, but to let the sounds and images light up your mind. All movies – with the exception of the egregiously brain dead – activate thoughts. But here’s one that cultivates a rhythm and space for active wondering about the construction, drawing unavoidable attention to every artistic choice, each frame, each cut.

8. It’s a movie that blends the personal and political, as if there’s a difference to begin with. Jobs have taken her to troubled areas all around the world. Everywhere, political strife has hurt. We glimpse it with a USB drive from Citizenfour ground up in cement. And Michael Moore mid-Fahrenheit 9/11 promising he’ll try to help a soldier who admits he plans to go AWOL before his next deployment. And women in every corner of the globe bravely explaining their rapes, their kidnappings, their decisions to have abortions. Johnson’s camera has captured much pain, and the weight of these encounters make it clear that nothing is ever a simple case of partisan or ideological talking points. Life is as political as it is messy.

9. It’s a movie of one life reflected in other people. Late in the film is footage of Johnson returning to a small village to visit a family she recorded years before. (We’ve seen some of them earlier, including one harrowing shot of a toddler playing with a hatchet, hearing and sympathizing with Johnson’s off-camera winces, aching with tension as she, and the camera, keep an objective distance.) She wants to show them the final product and tell them how much their kindness meant to her. Here’s something we don’t often see in a documentary. Yes, there are the facts recorded. But what impact did it have on those filmed, and those doing the filming? What we see as cinema vérité has an unseen reverse shot. Taken together they’d be a slice of life for the fly on the wall, too. When we see glimpses of home movies, Johnson’s twins or her dying mother or her aging father, we see a mostly happy family with usual problems, and yet we also see a stark contrast to the human misery she’s devoted her life to chronicling. When we hear her voice from behind the camera, she’s not breaking the fourth wall. She’s behind it, the engaged and empathetic artist and witness.

10. It’s a movie of juxtapositions. With editor Nels Bangerter (who has worked on some of the same projects as Johnson) images, ideas, feelings, impressions, and stories sit side by side. We see a tough boxer taking a hard loss, then getting comforted by his mother. We see Johnson’s mother slipping into Alzheimer’s. We see people around the world recounting past trauma. We hear the urgent warnings of a translator and guide as military in a far flung conflict zone suspiciously sizes up the presence of a doc crew outside a prison. We see a creaking Ferris Wheel in Afghanistan. The world is large, and full of surprise. Johnson finds the serendipity and logic behind the vast differences and confluences, forcing to think about moments in new contexts. We see the resilience of those who face the unthinkable, carry unspeakable devastation, and continue forward, living their lives. The mundane and the moving sit comfortably together.

11. It’s a movie as a way of understanding a mediator. What is a cameraperson but the one who sees the things we can’t and brings it back to us for our consideration? It’s her decision that shapes a moment, notices detail, frames a narrative. With a director and editor it becomes a documentary’s message. But she’s the source. It starts with her. Now she shapes it to her own purposes, aiming it directly at the audience, with an understanding that they’ll make of it what they will. Here’s what she saw. What do you make of it?

12. It’s a movie as metaphor. The cameraperson is a conduit for so much human existence. She’s a purifier, collecting the most wrenching moments of someone’s life (a limp newborn baby not breathing, the film’s most harrowing sustained sequence; or an old woman’s testimony of kidnapping and torture, hard even to hear) and making such grief useful to a wide audience. There is the old concept of the sin-eater, a person who absolves the departed of their pain by engaging in a ritual meal that allows them eternal peace. Taking in others’ pain can be an act of kindness. Johnson includes an interview with people investigating war crimes. They explain what a relief it is to the victims to unburden themselves, and yet how difficult it is that now the investigators must carry that burden with no release. Isn’t that true, also, of the cameraperson along with them? Where can she go to take the pain she’s recorded? She’s taken in the strong emotions, good and bad, of everything she’s seen, and now it is a part of her. The only release is to share it with us.

13. Cameraperson is a masterpiece.

Monday, September 19, 2016


Seeing Bridget Jones’s Baby is like reconnecting with an old friend you thought and hoped would have her life together by now. It’s not her fault. That’s just what life keeps throwing her way. In her case, life is the plot novelist Helen Fielding and filmmakers like Sharon Maguire keep serving up. Each movie forces her to awkwardly relearn the same lessons: to roll with the punches, have self-confidence, and be happy with who she is whether or not there’s a man in her life. Fifteen years have passed since the socially awkward Bridget (Renée Zellweger) first strode on screen in the sweet and charming Bridget Jones’s Diary, the story of sad single woman in London who can’t decide between two rakish men, a slick cad (Hugh Grant) and a cold, but secretly warm-hearted, stuffed shirt (Colin Firth). The sequel, 2004’s Edge of Reason, reset the relationships to have the same men fighting over her in much the same emotional beats. At least Baby makes three a slightly different dynamic, finding Bridget a new fling and a nine-month surprise growing throughout.

For the better part of an hour the movie gets by on nothing more than the sheer pleasure of seeing the twinkly-eyed Zellweger back on the screen. She hasn’t had a role in six years, and hasn’t been Bridget, her most famous character, in over a decade. So when a now-43-year-old Jones walks into a sad, lonely birthday convinced her work life will be her satisfying replacement for romantic travails, it feels awfully nice to have her driven and desirous of nothing more than self-improvement and self-care. Alas, it’s too good to be true, as a hoookup at a music festival with a mysterious billionaire (Patrick Dempsey) and an unexpected rekindling of passions with her old love (Firth) leave her pregnant. Once more, two men fight for her affections, this time with the ticking time bomb of a DNA test (which she decides to make post-partum instead of an amniocentesis) adding an extra layer of squirmy comic tension.

That’s a decent start to a good Bridget reunion, progressing her story slightly, creating new conflict, upping the stakes, and inviting new handsome middle-aged men into her world. Now she’s committed to having a baby (she bristles at being called a “geriatric mother,” but also recognizes this might be her one chance at pregnancy) and settling into a new aspect of life. To help her do so, she faces the Solomon-like task of figuring out which man gets to raise the baby as her co-parent. Will it be the man she has loved, or the man she could love? Not a bad question. This certainly isn’t a calamitous late sequel. But it lacks its original nimble spark. Running a galumphing 122 minutes, co-writers Fielding, Dan Mazer (Dirty Grandpa), and the great Emma Thompson have simply not enough plot or charm to last. Especially lumpy, there are underfed subplots, forced short cameos for familiar faces past (though Jim Broadbent never hurts), and a central farce with far too much dead air for how urgent its mysteries are. Bridget’s dithering about informing one prospective father of the other, and indeed her confusion about whether biology should inform her choice at all, creates a long, awkward stasis.

Beyond the wheel-spinning at its center, the movie can’t quite place Bridget in a believable 2016. There’s tepid social media commentary and millennial bashing in the form a new team brought in to run the newsroom where Bridget works. (A few exhausted swipes at man buns, live streams, and hashtags aren’t as nervy as the movie seems to think.) Similarly, an endless gag in which Bridget doesn’t recognize Ed Sheeran falls flat, but not as deadly behind-the-times as an enthusiastic dance floor “Gangnam Style” discussion. What is this? 2012? Ditto the recurring references to a court case and subsequent protest parade concerning a Russian women’s punk band. These are weak distractions from the questions at hand. Who is the father? Who is best for Bridget? Will she finally get her life together? All is answered, and reasonably satisfactorily if you ask me. And Zellweger and Firth are good enough at selling the long history and misty-eyed potential in their relationship. But the distended phoniness around them is more than I could take.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Cops and Robbers: HELL OR HIGH WATER

Hell or High Water locates the western there for the taking underneath the modern post-industrial late-capitalism American west. It takes place in modern day, but it still has black hats and white hats and even some hats in between, and a preoccupation with who is allowed to make the rules and who is allowed to transgress the rules. The whole thing boils down to a hardtack cops and robbers movie, two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) hitting small-town Texas banks to raise enough money to keep their late mother’s farmland out of the bank’s hands. You see, there’s oil there, and the bank would very much like to sell it to a company willing to tap it and pump out liquid gold. The brothers would rather get out of foreclosure and see the profits themselves. So they pull on ski masks, hop in their dusty, beat-up cars, and drive from target to target. All the while, two cops (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) are in laid-back, laconic pursuit.

Read the film of a piece with screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s previous script, for last year’s Drug War thriller Sicario, and it’s plainly another movie about contemporary frontier law and order, where people forgotten and ignored simply do the best they can to scrape out a living whether it be through crime or punishment. Taken with director David Mackenzie’s previous film, British father-and-son-in-prison movie Starred Up, it’s another masculine vision of family tension rippling across a surface disturbed by their mixed loyalties and the threat of violence (both from within and from outside the family unit). The tough, smart Hell or High Water is a synthesis of these ideas, held together as if by saltines and spittle as a dry and dusty combination of exposition and foreshadowing. As the brothers draw closer to their fundraising goal the lawmen draw closer to catching them. This won’t end well, but there’s an egalitarian respect on the part of the filmmakers, recognizing both halves of the equation have humanity worth considering.

The movie’s sharp plotting and unassuming concern with its characters’ lives put me in mind of Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard. Hardly a scene goes by without a line of dialogue that’s pleasing to the ear – an eccentric spin on a common sentiment, or a revealing exchange that casually illuminates some nook or cranny of personality a more single-mindedly plot-focused film would ignore. This extends to the robbers, as one fresh from prison remains jumpy and unpredictable, but also wounded that the other had their mother’s favor right up until the end. And then there are the cops, Bridges’ the old vet on the brink of retirement out for one last big case needling his Native American partner with the kind of affectionate racially-charged teasing he thinks is fine because it’s meant well, but lands with studied stoic exasperation on Birmingham’s face. Then there are the one-scene-wonders, bank tellers and managers, waitresses and patrons, casino employees and gamblers. Each of them makes the most of their moment, the heroes of their own stories living their own lives, only coming into focus for us because they happen to cross paths with the main event.

It plays out by turns thrilling and suspenseful, but often at a relaxed downbeat, building at a slow, steady pace. The robberies are sudden, messy, scary, dangerous. The investigation is methodical and folksy. It’s told in a style that’s terse, matter-of-fact. Vast desert landscapes and run-down small towns are the new Western terrain. In the forgotten corners of the Great Recession, poverty, Chevron, and concealed carry permits are the constants. But it’s not just recent downturn. Factories have dried up. Family farms can’t make ends meet. One old man stares out across a quaint but deserted downtown and intones, “No one’s made a living here in 150 years.” Who can blame the robbers for getting creative about getting by? They steal from the bank like the bank is allowed to steal from them. And yet who can say that they shouldn’t pay for their sins? With a strong, steady hand the movie finds an exciting climax, and a resigned headshake of an ambiguous conclusion. The movie’s like an old narrative folk-country ballad where the lyrics might err on the side of clumsy and derivative, but the chords are strong, the personality is bright, and the sentiment rings true.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Into the Woods: BLAIR WITCH

Perhaps there’s no good way to make a satisfying follow up to The Blair Witch Project. The 1999 found-footage horror phenomenon, the first mainstream effort to effectively use what would become a formula, is simply suis generis and unrepeatable. Maybe it’s because when it comes to found footage horror, the less we know the better. The secret to a great entry in this subgenre is leaving space for an audience to freak itself out. That’s why Blair Witch Project is mostly three young people on a bad camping trip, and why Paranormal Activity is mostly empty rooms. These films set a tone, generate a spooky mystery, and populate the low-res photography with believable characters, then let enough creepiness sneak in around the edges until the audience is leaning into the frame, studying every little clue, reading horror into every image well before the big payoffs. So when sequels try to pile on explanations and lore, the simple, primal, rough-hewn and unshakable scares of the original can’t be recaptured.

Filmmakers have already tried doing an unconventional Project sequel. That’d be 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which dropped the found-footage aesthetic in favor of a standard late-90’s post-Scream self-aware teen slasher with characters who were fans of the first film convinced it was a real documentary. There’s something half-clever, half-irritating about that film, and nothing scary. Now, 16 years later, the rights holders have doubled back to the property to try a more conventional sequel this time. Called simply Blair Witch, the movie follows James (James Allen McCune), the much younger brother of the first film’s Heather. Now grown, he’s embarking on an expedition into the cursed woods to look for clues that he hopes will explain his sister’s disappearance. Tagging along on this cold case hunt are his best friend (Brandon Scott) and two film students (Callie Hernandez and Corbin Reid) intent on documenting every step of the way. The growth in cheap camera tech over the last decade and a half means the film isn’t quite as scrappy and cheap, or as limited in its coverage, as the original. But more isn’t always better.

Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett, the same team behind bad slasher worship You’re Next and enjoyable Carpenter-inspired mystery/actioner The Guest, turn their horror recycling to recreating the sensations of the original Blair Witch. In the process it becomes one of those sequels that also function as a remake. The broad strokes are similar. A group goes into the woods, hears mysterious noises and sees ominous symbols (the sticks and rocks still have a haunted shiver), growing increasingly frightened and lost as they devolve into bickering and paranoia. Then it gets even weirder. This one plays out with a larger cast including a creepy couple of Blair Witch fans (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) who beg to come along, their older, cheaper camera setting their footage apart from our main crew’s more professional ear-mounted HD cams and fancy drone. There’s more cutting and more to see, and more interpersonal dynamics at play – the skeptics and the true believers, with sublimated attractions and irritations bubbling up at inopportune times.

As the night grows unnaturally long, the movie’s pale imitation gives over to its worst impulses. It becomes just another found footage movie with blurry headache-inducing visual vomit as characters run and scream and pant. Their panic becomes our confusion. As all sense of time and direction finally goes out the window for these characters who are injured – glimpses of gore are another aspect unproductively amped up here – and separated with failing flashlights, the movie becomes an assemblage of random flashes through which you can squint and almost make out the clichéd climax gushing forth. At a certain point it becomes nothing but characters aimlessly running around in the dark shouting each other’s names between jumpy jolts, claustrophobic scrambling, and obligatory homage to the original film’s most memorable moments. Deliberately conjuring reminders of the intense sensation Project was make this Blair Witch all the more disappointing. There was a real original. This is simply forgettable and derivative, technically competent but unable to scare up anything truly frightening.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Secrets and Lies: SNOWDEN

Edward Snowden makes perfect sense as an Oliver Stone protagonist. Like JFK’s dogged district attorney Jim Garrison or Born on the Fourth of July’s veteran turned war protestor Ron Kovic, Snowden is a man whose pursuit of what he sees as unambiguous and truthful duty to country causes him to endure outer skepticism and scorn, and inner destabilizing life changes. Like Savages, The Doors, Platoon, and two Wall Streets, it’s about a young person drawn into a career with exciting upsides, but with downsides readily apparent as well. Like Nixon and W. and World Trade Center and Alexander it’s about a man driven by and ultimately fated to be crushed under the weight of history and expectation. But unlike those previous movies, Snowden finds Stone at his most restrained. He views the proceedings from a remove, not digging into the psychology as deeply, or using filmmaking flash as ostentatiously. It’s a movie that sees the spreading web of surveillance with a mournful paranoia. Look at what our government can do and has done, it says, lauding its hero while wondering if what he did will actually matter in the long run.

To best make the case for their protagonist as a misunderstood hero, Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald (The Homesman) begin by showing us Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) at the point of his earliest civic duty. In 2004 he’s discharged from boot camp after a painful leg injury, after which his drive to serve his country leads him to transfer to the C.I.A. He’s a smart, unassumingly confident computer nerd who defends George W. Bush, gently teases his liberal girlfriend (Shailene Woodley) about her beliefs, and admits to a fondness for Ayn Rand. (It’s not hard to read this material as Stone inviting conservatives into the story with a “See? He’s one of you?”) The movie then follows Snowden’s gradual disillusionment with the intelligence community as he moves from one contract job to the next, finding increasingly shadier tactics used in gathering and deploying data scooped up from a global dragnet. Each new revelation gives him waves of anxiety that seem to pass, but slowly and steadily accrues in the back of his mind until he has to act.

The movie becomes a portrait of a man whose work anxiety grows so potent his only recourse is to exorcise it by releasing it into the world. There’s something of the terror I remember feeling then to this telling now. (If his revelations about the wide-ranging surveillance tactics at the fingertips of our country (and others) didn’t have you slap a piece of tape over your webcam, I don’t know what would.) Because we know what Snowden did – and what we don’t know remains Top Secret and therefore a ripe target for Stone’s mythologizing speculation – there’s little surprise to the film. It’s even structured as flashbacks around scenes of documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) filming Snowden’s secret whistleblower interview with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), footage which would become the Academy Award-winning film Citizenfour. This creates a strangely sedate sense of dutiful reenactment, making the characters mere pawns in historical inevitability. Gone is the volatile conspiratorial frenzy of Stone’s heated political films or the schlocky gusto of his genre fare. Here there’s an almost serene sense of data flowing, history written in bits and clicks, coded to produce this outcome.

This calm befits what is Stone’s fastest turnaround for contemplation on a flashpoint in modern American history, beating WTC (another of his eerie calm films) by two years. Anthony Dod Mantle (frequent Danny Boyle collaborator) makes images of clean simplicity, cut with occasional smeary doubling or reflections through layers of screens and glass. Snowden is trapped in a digital world made tangible, with information glowing and streaming, collected and collated. His personal dramas – simple fights with his girlfriend, a late-breaking health issue – are halfhearted, well-acted but beside the point. The most vivid crisis points are when his work life intrudes with unwelcome force on his home life. He can’t take his medication to prevent seizures because it slows his response time. A woozy snap zoom interrupts a heated love scene as he catches the unblinking cam eye of an open laptop, the extreme close up of the tiny black circle showing their nakedness reflected in it. There are standard thriller elements of people avoiding surveillance, befitting a news story that’s already informed dozens of action movies from Jason Bourne to Captain America 2 and Furious 7. Its tension remains at a constant low-boil, mystery dulled by unavoidable outcomes.

It all adds up to a movie that’s vital and turgid, obvious but with flickers of surprise and life. The known facts of the story are bulked up with lesser-known or fictionalized incidents, inconvenient truths and convenient fictions pumped through with enjoyable personalities. Around even corner is a likable recognizable face bringing fine energy opposite their scene partners. Part of the fun is wondering who’ll show up next: Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Keith Stanfield, Logan Marshall-Green, Ben Schnetzer. Each is used by Stone to keep interest and curiosity flowing, never quite sure whether each new co-worker is a sympathetic ear or a reason to raise Snowden’s disillusionment. They create a pattern to the movie’s pulsing compelling/dull, scary/stale info-dumps (the best of which is an abstract swirling animation of social media chatter and secret metadata flowing into a black hole that slowly forms an eye, the sort of image so hypnotizing it doesn’t matter how blatant the symbolism), playing key roles in the process and personifications of various view points.

In the end it’s another Stone movie of weary patriotism. It’s about the burden of being a good American, about loving the country so much it’s worth wishing it were better. Clinging stubbornly to ideals is difficult, especially when calling into question the ratio of security to liberty from within the government can make you a target for, at best, criticism and stress, and at worst jail or exile. Stone makes Snowden a figure unambiguously good, leaking information as a last-ditch effort to improve what he sees as a slippery slope to tyranny. After the deed is done he literally has Snowden walk out of the dark data center into gleaming white sunlight. And yet the unsettled aftermath – stuck in Russia, communicating in warnings from a robotic screen – creates uncertainty, ending on a slightly more ambiguous note. He receives applause and attention, yes, but isolation and confusion, too. He thought it was important we hear what was happening. Now we know. Now what?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Before President: SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU

Southside with You is a cute movie about the young Obamas’ first date on a sunny Chicago day in 1989. We know they’ll soon fall in love, and we know in twenty years they’ll be the president and first lady of the United States. The movie knows this, too, but graciously keeps the context mostly subtextual. Its focus is on two sweet, idealistic-but-pragmatic, charismatic young people drawn together over the course of a lovely afternoon, building to nothing more than a first kiss – shot by cinematographer Patrick Scola in a swoony, light-streaked Wong Kar-wai-inspired shot that’s worth the wait – and a lingering promise of a second date. I can’t imagine a film like this – small, romantic, only implicitly political – about any other president’s first date. Though maybe that says more about my imagination than about this film’s particular qualities. Maybe John Waters could make a good dark romantic comedy about Nixon’s wooing his future wife by driving her on dates with other men.

But the Obamas are unlike any past presidential couple. As our first African-American Commander in Chief and First Lady, they have tremendous symbolic importance above and beyond their personal or political qualities. They are history in the making, his election proof our society can overcome our worst impulses, while the reaction from the right – unconscionable obstructionism, fear mongering, lying, and, of course, racism – is proof not all progress is linear. The movie situates the young Obamas as a black man and woman indebted to a cultural context. They are surrounded and informed by notable black voices – a Janet Jackson song under the opening credits, Ernie Barnes paintings in a gallery, an African drum circle in a park, Stevie Wonder and Good Times and Do the Right Thing discussed, and a well-read copy of a Toni Morrison novel cracked open. This is a movie casually but undeniably interested in the legacy that produced the Obamas, and the tradition to which they contribute.

Michelle Obama (then Robinson) emerges as the more overtly political figure in this slice-of-life. They’re colleagues from a law firm out on the town spending time before a local meeting on the southside of Chicago. She talks guardedly but candidly with Barack about her concerns as a black woman in a white man’s firm, the pressures to work twice as hard (at a minimum) to be given the same respect. Even then, she’s marginalized with microagressions. She’s an engaged and ambitious person. Barack is, too. When they arrive at the meeting, the neighborhood is discouraged by a setback in a bid to get a safe community center. Obama holds court, the power of his rhetoric alone enough to turn the dispirited hopeful. (Yes, he can.) Impressed, Michelle asks him afterwards if he ever considered a career in politics. “Maybe,” he says quite seriously, but with the smirk of dramatic irony half hidden in his eyes.

Debut writer-director Richard Tanne’s screenplay often gets an overly aware sense of foreshadowing about its dialogue like that. At one point, Barack talks about his childhood in Hawaii, to which Michelle quips that it sounds “so foreign.” Later she crinkles her nose and declares his extemporaneous speech “professorial.” It goes like that, making sure to include little winks and nods to various talking points from the last eight years. It’s distracting. But otherwise the movie makes no attempt to explicitly bring their futures into the picture. It’s an admirable attempt to warmly contextualize the political as personal, even if the dialogue occasionally errs on the side of sounding like two people trading lines from their Wikipedia pages. But even when the specifics are a bit stilted, the strength of the movie rests on its small scope, charting only the small shifts in affections over the course of a picturesque tour of stunning Chicago backdrops.

The movie is slight and sweet, burbling with the lowest of low-key romance. It’s only a first date, after all. Parker Sawyers (Monsters: Dark Continent) and Tika Sumpter (Get On Up) play the leads, appearing in every scene in a likable acting duet that reveals likeminded people slowly drawing closer through friendship to a tentative, promising intimacy. Sawyers and Sumpter carry the picture through its weaker, more obvious moments. So well cast and capably performed, it’s the sort of based-on-real-people movie where the artifice fades away and it feels like we’re looking at the real thing. From certain angles in certain moments, it looks not like impersonation, but exactly right. It is most powerful as an expression of cultural images and personal history as the two ways they, and we, make sense of our world and our lives’ possibilities. That’s what they talk about – anecdotes, family stories, work troubles, music, movies, dreams, and aspirations – as they learn about each other. And it carries with it the unspoken recognition of the inspirational benefits of where they’ll end up.
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