Snowden

September 19, 2016 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo
Directed by: Oliver Stone (“Savages”)
Written by: Kieran Fitzgerald (“The Homesman”) and Oliver Stone (“Savages”)

As one of the best documentaries of the last several years, “Citizenfour” was an endlessly fascinating fly-on-the-wall account of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden blowing the whistle on surveillance that the government was doing. Regardless of the audience’s opinion, the footage was unassailably mesmerizing as history, agree with it or not, was being made. It’s a film that didn’t necessarily need a dramatizing, but as a person, Snowden could stand to be understood and explored. Unfortunately, that’s where the blunt hammer of director Oliver Stone comes in.

Rising through several government agencies, computer analyst Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) notices that the government is gathering information from its own citizens, with access to personal communication, webcams, and more. Torn about what to do, and with his relationship strained, Snowden makes a decision that could land him in jail for treason.

It will probably annoy some viewers, but Gordon-Levitt’s voice work is actually remarkably close to how the actual Snowden sounds. It’s a good performance, in a film of pretty solid performances all around. Shailene Woodley’s character being a strong personality is more of a testament to her capabilities than the way she is written, which can often seem to flip flop from scene to scene.

The most interesting stuff in the film is seeing Snowden slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together and feel drawn to let the public know what was actually going on. There’s a certain psychology behind the decision making and an awakening of a conscience that is touched on, though perhaps not explored enough. The parts of the film that are straight out of “Citizenfour” really seem to drag, however, as it is a re-enactment of something that is not only so recent, but not really adjusted for any type of dramatic effect.

As one might expect, a movie about Edward Snowden directed by Oliver Stone is not exactly an unbiased affair. Stone is very clear in his position about how he sees Snowden. While it is never quite preachy, one of the most fascinating parts about the story of Snowden is that there’s a real, honest debate and divide around the country about the appropriateness of his actions. Presenting the information and letting the public decide for themselves was the crux for the decision that Snowden made. Without that debate, the movie feels extremely one-sided and doesn’t allow audiences to make their own decision.

“Snowden” isn’t necessarily a bad film, but it is one that is riddled with problems. It is painfully boring in parts, and it is anything but neutral. The fact of the matter is, “Citizenfour” is such a compelling film, and a better representation of this story, that the dramatization falls way short of the goals. The decision to show Snowden’s actions through the lens of his personal relationships really hurts a film that could have been an exploration into why the biggest whistleblower in history did so. It’s a shame that the character of Snowden isn’t more interesting.

The Fault In Our Stars

June 6, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff
Directed by: Josh Boone (“Stuck In Love”)
Written by: Scott Neustadter (“The Spectacular Now”) and Michael H. Weber (“The Spectacular Now”)

In an adaptation of the wildly popular young adult novel, “The Fault In Our Stars” tells the love story of Hazel Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) a 16-year old with lung cancer who meets Augustus Waters, (Ansel Elgort) who is cancer-free after having a leg amputated, at a cancer support group. It’s a story that by its very nature, could be emotionally manipulative and packed with schmaltz. Instead, a fantastic script and impressive performances navigate it away from pure melodrama.

As a film filled with emotionally taxing circumstances and scenes, “The Fault In Our Stars” provides fertile ground for its actors to show their dramatic chops and they do it in spades. Woodley, who was robbed of an Oscar nomination for her incredible work in “The Descendants,” once again delivers a heartfelt performance that shows dynamic acting range. However, Elgort deserves an equal amount of credit and is a true revelation in the film. This is a kid who displays effortless charisma, natural humor, and a confidence that feels completely genuine. He shows emotional depth and vulnerability in his performance. At times, Augustus seems like the perfect, ideal person, but Elgort is so good in the role that it doesn’t really matter.

In a movie with many great performances, the unsung heroes of the film are definitely screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. Known for their romantically-themed scripts in “(500) Days of Summer” and “The Spectacular Now,” the duo show an incredible amount of balance with “The Fault in Our Stars.” As an example, they do not let the cancer elements overpower the film and make it a complete bummer. Instead, they let the relationship between these two characters be the star of the film. Admittedly, there are also some missteps along the way. There is some smarty dialogue and voice over work and a scene towards the climax that proved to be ill-fitting and a distraction. Still, with such delicate and naturally dramatic subject matter, Neustadter and Weber have almost the perfect delicate touch needed for this type of story.

There are a few moments towards the end of the movie where the film ever so slightly tips into a manipulation of the heart-strings, but the amount of restraint shown by Neustader, Weber and director Josh Boone should not be discounted. “The Fault In Our Stars” is, of course, tailor made for a teen audience and fans of the novel. It is also an impressive and sincere film that transcends its target audience and should be affecting to all, which is encouraging proof that movies directed at young adults and teens don’t have to be vapid and pandering.

The Spectacular Now

August 23, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson
Directed by: James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”)
Written by: Scott Neustadter (“(500) Days of Summer”) and Michael H. Weber (“(500) Days of Summer”)

As we meet our protagonist, high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), he’s drinking a beer, writing a curse word-laden college essay he’s clearly not taking seriously. It not only serves as a placeholder for his character later in the film, but it introduces the audience to some darker themes, chiefly underage drinking and borderline alcoholism. As the film continues, we see bits and pieces of these themes, although nothing really scratches below the surface. It’s an issue that plagues the new coming-of-age drama, “The Spectacular Now.”

After some heavy drinking, popular high school slacker Sutter wakes up to find he has passed out in the lawn of less popular albeit sweet schoolmate Aimee (Shailene Woodley). As their friendship blossoms into something more, Sutter finds himself surprised with how much he cares about Aimee, and how difficult their relationship could possibly become because of the heavy baggage he carries.

Woodley, who was absolutely robbed of an Oscar nomination for her outstanding performance in 2011’s “The Descendants,” is in top form here. Aided by her plain clothes and lack of make-up, she is able to encapsulate the attitude and personality of a girl who is totally comfortable in her own skin, but also the naivety that goes along with being a girl who never had a rambunctious childhood. Her scenes with Teller bring forward a natural on-screen relationship that really grounds the film.

Teller, while good, is only marginally believable as a super-confident, slick and fast-talking teenager. He oozes coolness, but at times it’s difficult to understand why. Kyle Chandler, who is very slowly starting to reap the benefits of his Emmy win for the final season of “Friday Night Lights,” gives the strongest performance of the supporting cast as Sutter’s father. From the second his character appears on screen, Chandler is dialed in and adds little nuances in speech patterns and attitudes that make his scenes a joy to watch.

Frankly, the acting is solid all around. The problem, however, is that despite a wealth of interesting characters, director James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”) doesn’t spend enough time to get to know them. Sutter’s boss played by Bob Odenkirk or his good friend Ricky played by Masam Holden are just two examples of characters who have a lot to add in their brief moments on screen, but then disappear for large chunks of time. We don’t get to truly know these characters, which is disappointing considered the depth they appear to add.

As mentioned before, “The Spectacular Now” presents a lot of darker themes that might not be in a typical coming-of-age film. Sutter, who is finishing high school, is essentially an alcoholic, who drives drunk on several occasions during the film. There’s also the slow corruption of Aimee, who goes from a straight-edge teen to taking swigs of hard alcohol from a flask. The problem, however, is that while these themes are presented and touched on, they’re never fully explored. We see minor consequences of Sutter’s drinking problems, but the stakes are never high and true darkness is never revealed

If nothing else, “The Spectacular Now” is a well-made film featuring fine performances, but the lack of depth in many different facets leaves the viewer wanting more. With such promising elements, it’s a shame the final product is decidedly unspectacular.

The Descendants

November 27, 2011 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges
Directed by: Alexander Payne (“Sideways”)
Written by: Alexander Payne (“Sideways”), Nat Faxon (debut), Jim Rash (debut)

With the beautiful scenery of Hawaii as backdrop, Matt King (George Clooney) describes how people assume just because he lives in the island paradise, he is on vacation all the time. Truth is, he hasn’t golfed in years and his problems are no different than anyone living on the mainland.  Although his problems are plentiful, none is greater than struggling to care for his comatose wife.  This crisis becomes the center of “The Descendants,” a story about a father struggling to hold onto everything, including his family.

After his wife is left gravely injured in a boating accident, Matt is thrust into taking care of his two daughters; the younger Scottie (Amara Miller) who is lost without her mother, and the older Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who is off to college and acting out against everyone.  As Matt pries further into why Alexandra is so mad at her mother, he discovers that his wife might have been cheating on him. While trying to find out information on the man who slept with his wife, Matt must also deal with pressure from his extended family as he negotiates a deal to sell a huge mass of land that was bequeathed to his family from their Hawaiian ancestors.

Clooney is brilliant in his role, but what else is new? It’s truly astonishing how effortless Clooney emotes and delivers his lines with such great personality and wit. He will without question carry on his tradition of bi-annual acting Oscar nominations with his performance. For the supporting roles, director Alexander  Payne decided to fill out the rest of his cast with a melting pot of veteran and novice actors. While every cast member does a really great job, none are better than Woodley. Best known for her role on the ABC Family show “The Secret Life of The American Teenager,” Woodley plays the role of a foul-mouthed rebellious teenager to perfection. Although frustrated with her father for numerous reasons, her character Alexandra slowly grasps the situation at hand and attempts to mature, something that Woodley approaches at the level of a far more experienced actor.

After a seven-year absence, Payne returns with one of his more accessible films to date. The script he co-wrote is darkly funny with some very devastating one-liners that are delivered with perfection by Clooney. A good portion of the comedy also comes from Alexandra’s dopey free-spirit friend Sid, played by newcomer and Austin,Texas native Nick Krause. Although Payne does a good job at balancing comedy and drama, the film skews far more dramatically than one might think. This happens to be a great thing, as the more dramatic scenes are among the best in the film.

While the final act of the film is just a touch predictable, it carries extreme power. Anchored by a stellar performance from one of the most consistent actors in Hollywood, “The Descendants” is a fantastic and sometimes heartbreaking portrayal of a father struggling with responsibilities he’s not prepared for and trying to confront and make peace with the past.