Sunday, June 28, 2015

Citizenfour: A Masterpiece True Horror Story of our Time.

Movie Review: Citizenfour

Director: Laura Poitras

Reviewed: 28 June 2015

jamesintexas rating--****

The world in which we live in is unlike the one which I was born into or into which my parents were born. Our digital fingerprints live forever in current and defunct email addresses (by my count, I've had one in college, four on hotmail, one in gmail, and four work addresses), multiple devices (home computers, laptops, tablets, phones), and the ever-growing social media hydra of facebook, twitter, four square, linked-in, instagram, etc...  Photos exist everywhere and anywhere. Things that I wrote on message boards or in college float around, available through searches to anyone. All that data, all that information is on a sort of digital bulletin board for the length of our lives and beyond. And what happens if the collection and analysis of the digital fingerprints of our lives is done with ulterior or unseen motives? In Sofia Coppola's film The Bling Ring a few years ago, bored teens in Hollywood used technology to figure out when celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton were out of town, then searched for where they lived, and then invaded their homes to peruse and steal their stuff. The very same thing has been happening for a long time in our post-9-11 world as skilled documentarian Laura Poitras, thoughtful journalist Glenn Greenwald, and courageous whistleblower Edward Snowden show us in the remarkable Citizenfour, a film that documents a place and time in such a profound and moving way. Although the action of the film involves smart people sitting and talking in claustrophobic hotel rooms that serve as quasi-prisons, it is not a boring film. Instead, I'd call it one of the best films of the year, filled with horror and a sense of the emerging reality that we live in: the film's ending is not yet known.

Ed Snowden looks like people I know with whom I went to college. He could be the brother of one of my friends. He's deeply knowledgeable and passionate and thorough in his work as an NSA analyst, but he is not a zealot or a caricature or an anarchist. He sat in a government job in Hawaii and saw his work and the work of others being ultimately opposed to his values and the values of our country and found himself in a unique position to challenge it at the highest level. Someone needs to build the websites that collect the data. Someone needs to have access. Snowden's seeking out of Poitras and Greenwald was most wise, as they are worthy caretakers of this explosive story. To see Ed in the hotel room, talking through the release of leaks and information to the media, attempting to shape the revelations that will completely up-end his life forever is breathtaking. To hear him speak of not wanting to hide his identity, to want to confront the government directly is laudable. Poitras focuses on the conversations, the handwritten notes, the plan for release of leaks to the media, the concern for phones being tapped, and the biggest drama of the film takes places as front desk and media outlets call his hotel room, as the UN attempts to shuttle Ed from one hotel to another, as he speaks to his girlfriend thousands of miles away as the government attempts to evict him and does questionable construction on his street. The zooming out to look at statements and speeches of President Obama is also damning, as it sharply criticizes the administration's say one thing, do another policies regarding data collection on its citizens.

Poitras flashes informative but not overwhelming text on the screen while showing lingering long shots of NSA spy facilities being built in Utah or the nighttime shimmering of barbed wire encrusted servers in German which hold all of our secrets. The engagement here is at the root level of what do Americans deserve in terms of digital privacy? Can (Has) the government compromised its citizenry's rights to protest, to organize, to air grievances, and to speak freely when it captures and collects all private conversations before any sort of crime is committed? One activist talks about the linking up of our phones with something as mundane as a Metro Card to ride the train. With access to those two data points, a person could track where one goes and who one possibly meets by cross-checking the data with millions of others. We are in the world of pre-cognition here, the world of science fiction like Minority Report. What must be done to keep us safe? What should not be done to keep us safe? These questions, rarely raised, were thrust into the international spotlight because of Snowden's work with Greenwald. The ending of the film is riveting because it begins to show the myriad other whistleblowers that could be inspired by this moment in history, as well as the uncertainty of where the story is going and where the story will end.

My limited understanding is that Ed Snowden is still alive and still in Russia, unable to leave for threat of arrest or worse by our government. But I believe his voice is still being heard: he recently spoke via technology at the SXSW Festival in Austin. The idea of citizenry speaking truth to power has its roots in American history. Think Watergate and Deep Throat. Think publishing The Pentagon Papers amidst the Vietnam War. And now, we have Edward Snowden exposing the NSA by revealing its collection of metadata on all of its citizens, especially the over one million that are on the watch list. I think history will come to bear upon his revelations in a way that shows his act to be one of bravery, patriotism, and a vital step in our nation's possible confronting of what we do in the shadows. I loved the 1999 film by Michael Mann The Insider, where the character of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) confronted his conscience and spoke up about lies being perpetuated by the tobacco industry but with great personal cost. That film resonated with me because it was about the moral crisis of that man: When do I speak up?

Edward Snowden has been a figure that I only cursorily knew about through perusing the news, watching media clips, and seeing vodka billboards on US-59 mocking his imprisonment in a Russian hotel. Poitras humanizes him and reminds us that he is a person, desperately trying to get his cowlick to stay down, nervous and uncertain like the rest of us but unwavering in his commitment to exposing what the government is doing. Poitras's Academy Award winning work here is brilliant not simply because of its unprecedented access: to be a fly on the wall in the room in these conversations is truly epic! But rather, the even more impressive nature of this documentary is her clear shaping of the conversation regarding metadata, the synthesis of the global media's reactions to the release of what the NSA is doing (taking us from Rio to Germany, from a London newspaper's nervousness that someone is going to come in and shut them down to the revelation that Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone has been tapped). Poitras goes both big and small, and the result is a blinding, searing indictment of the way things are while showing bravery and dare I say patriotism at the highest levels from activists, journalists, and documentarians. In Citizenfour, she shows citizenry at its most costly and upsetting and vital.

Spy Wins: A Hilarious Adventure

Movie Review: Spy

Director: Paul Feig

Reviewed: 25 June 2015

jamesintexas rating--***

Oh, what a difference a year makes, and what a difference a good director makes! Bouncing back from the abysmal and unfunny Tammy of last June, comedic dynamo and national treasure Melissa McCarthy returns to form in Paul Feig's thrilling Spy which has its sights set on lampooning elements of the genre while also telling a good tale. The mere treatment of McCarthy's office-bound but fully capable agent thrust into the field as a real person with friendships and hang-ups is a terrific leap forward, and the film rallies around its dynamite supporting cast who all look like they are having great fun. It's the best fun anyone has had with the James Bond/Spy genre since Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, and though it lacks that film's full-tilt anarchic goofiness, Spy delivers very solid laughs and enjoyable sequences. Well-done, all-around.

As CIA analyst Susan Cooper, McCarthy's character serves as the eyes and ears on missions for agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law, wonderful), feeding him information through contact lens cameras, talking  to him through an earpiece while safely ensconced in the home office. When Agent Fine's mission fails due to the nefarious Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, having fun), resulting in possible selling of bombs and it appears that agents' identities have been compromised, Cooper approaches Director Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) about going into the field as a relatively unknown who has the training but lacks the experience. The film becomes Susan's journey from one world to another, complete with help from Nancy (Miranda Hart), a fellow analyst, and rogue agent (and constant hilarious one-upper) Rick Ford (Jason Statham, divine). The pursuit of Rayna and possible nuclear explosive devices allows Susan to prove herself as the plot takes her to gamble in the finest casinos in Europe, lounge in private jets, assume multiple identities, out-wit talkative baddies, and ignite the expected propulsive pyrotechnic conclusion.

Yet through it all, McCarthy and Hart in particular embody their characters with a sense of fun and fear that shines through all of the backdrops and costumes. McCarthy is back at the top of the mountain, spouting obscene tirades with the best delivery in the business and shining in the action scenes, particularly a close hand-to-hand fight in a kitchen. Feig wisely eschews an overload of visual effects and keeps us focused on these characters in conflict and conversation with each other, and that's the key take-away from this film. I wish that he would reign in his tendency to overload the endings of his films with celebrity cameos, and it does feel a bit long at the end. The film takes its cues from the slick, recent Daniel Craig Bond films like Casino Royale, but it enjoys itself in its joke-telling and set-ups. It is fun, and the film allows us the pleasure of watching Janney, McCarthy, and Hart work together in multiple scenes of intelligent, capable women solving the spy issues of the day with intensity and hilarity. And who knew Jason Statham, formerly of The Transporter film franchise, had such an affinity for comedy? I wish he could be nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Spy. And Jude Law? He could have been Bond, but in this film, he gets to play it up in an endearing way; he's somebody that I constantly look forward to seeing again. And McCarthy returns to the top, and I'm awaiting her next work with a strong director.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Jurassic World: A Worthy Sequel

Movie Review: Jurassic World

Director: Colin Treverrow

Reviewed: 19 June 2015

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

For whatever reason, Colin Treverrow's new film Jurassic World has captured my imagination with its wonder and jaw-dropping sound and special effects. As a fan of Jurassic Park (which came out when I was in high school) who skipped the next two films, this sequel sidesteps those films and offers up a 'What if?' scenario after the retreat from Isla Nublar in the first film. The shadow of John Hammond looms over this film in the form of a statue of Jurassic Park's late creator, but despite a book jacket photo of Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and a near-cameo from Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), Treverrow is playing with a new park, mostly new dinosaurs, and a new set of rules. And in this film, dinosaurs are even more scary and even more destructive when things fall apart at the park, which they must, though I will admit to being as captivated by the quieter moments as much as the anarchy.

The film transports us to a fully-functional park, complete with Disney-like wristbands, monorails, SeaWorld-esque shows (with perhaps the coolest seat movement ever), and the inevitable worries of any big new thing: How do we keep the public's attention? How do we attract more visitors? How do we raise profits? The raw capitalism leads to reckless genetic engineering of new breeds of dinosaurs with the hubris that humanity can control what it creates. What could go wrong? Treverrow makes our lenses for this world a pair of brothers, Zach and Gray (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins), not particularly close, both weathering the imminent divorce of their parents who send them off for this vacation with their aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), one of the executives that runs Jurassic World. Claire is sketched broadly in the beginning of the film, always shown in high heels, Starbucks cup in hand, cell phone attached to her ear, navigating the world of the park with an eye for efficiency and not at all acknowledging the wonder of this created world. She, of course, is counter-balanced with the earthy Owen (Chris Pratt), animal trainer and tracker who takes the paycheck from Jurassic World but spouts off speeches about these animals being alive, bonding as a precarious Alpha of a pack of Velociraptors in a tense early scene. Pratt's character is there to teach Claire's character a lesson and to be a tough Indiana Jones-type, though Pratt delivers another charming, winning performance. In short, the center cannot hold, and both are thrust together in pursuit of Claire's nephews who find themselves alone in the park chased by Indominus Rex, a pretty awesome creature.

As expected, the dinosaurs are pretty amazingly rendered, and there are so many of them! Although there is no seen of emotional grandeur like the scene from the original film when Dr. Grant sees the first dinosaurs from the car, John Williams' score soaring behind him, the film comes close with a few innovations: a little kid riding a baby Triceratops in the park, bubble pods that allow people to race alongside a herd of galloping beasts, rafts the float down a river with dinos munching calmly alongside, and the thrilling underwater dinosaur that performs by leaping up to devour a great white shark as lunch! The creation of a hybrid dinosaur allows a new chance to be afraid with the rules being slightly altered from what we expect. We do not fully understand the newbie's power and tactics. Technology fails early and often in this film, so the film becomes about the managing of a retreat more than the fighting back. At its best, Jurassic World is scary and gruesome, with people getting taken and eaten in truly disturbing ways, a world where if you do not know a character's name or recognize the actor, watch out! I think it must push the limit of PG-13 in terms of people being devoured and torn apart; much is hinted without too much blood shown, but I felt it had a certain ruthlessness in the way it dispatched victims. I think it might be too intense for little kids, and I cannot believe that I just wrote that statement.

There are surprises and shocks that took my breath away, and the sound design booms all over the theater arriving from different corners, crafting a very unique cinematic experience. I do not think this film will ever be as much fun at home or on a computer; it is meant for the big screen. I never fully bought Zach and Gray as brothers or their emotional turmoil. Is it not enough that they are both nearly killed together? They have to deal with divorce too?  Much like the two kids in the original film, they are mostly there to be put in harm's way, though thankfully there is no scene as stupid as in the first film when an electric fence meant to dissuade a T-Rex only slightly injures a young boy grabbing onto it when the park's intermittent power returns. And, the denouement does not involve kids saving the day by tapping away on computers, thankfully. The film's sharp look at what a park would look like includes the trappings that would most appeal to families. It extends John Hammond's vision into a quasi-reality that looks and feels familiar. I think there's a terror here from the threat to the park goers that feels fresh and new. The crowds milling about are families with little kids and strollers, and the stampeding was quite scary to me as a relatively new father. No parenting book that I've read offers "How do you save your loved ones from dinosaurs?"

Of course, the characters take time to engage in philosophical arguments and debates that should have happened way before they started creating new dinosaurs or even started taking a paycheck from the company. The chain of command seems remarkably unclear for an enterprise of this magnitude, and Vincent D'Onofrio's character Hoskins need only twirl a mustache to be any more ridiculously villainous as a potential defense contractor, eager to sell trained Velociraptors to hunt terrorists. There is a nice acknowledgement of the first film through a quick foray into an abandoned building with reminders of touchstones from that story, but Treverrow does not linger, and soon everyone is chasing everyone, with efficient storytelling streamlined. Owen always shows up on his motorcycle wherever Claire is driving, and cell phones and communication work when the plot needs them to do so. New Girl star Jack Johnson delivers some much-needed humor as Lowery, a park technician with a birds eye view and a sense of responsibility to his job. Irrfan Khan plays Simon Masrani, a charming CEO-type of the park whose recklessness is telegraphed early and often through his insistence upon piloting his own helicopter. What could go wrong? But despite the film's flaws and its stumbling through with its main character Claire who goes from bumbling neophyte to efficient gunsmith to quick-thinking heroine, it works and entertains at a high level.

Ultimately, Jurassic World won me over with its eye-popping effects and imagery. The final fight is one for the ages, and the technology overpowers because it provides such a dramatic response in me. That underwater dinosaur is cool and terrifying. The film's quieter moments offer some food for thought about what we would pay for as consumers. I can forgive the film's more egregious sins because it brings me dinosaurs and fear, two potent ingredients that made this an ultimate summer movie going experience.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Pitch Not Entirely Perfect: Lots of Laughs Though

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect 2

Director: Elizabeth Banks

Reviewed: 29 May 2015

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

This film is just alright.  It's funny in moments, and it is enjoyable, but it does not really know what it wants to be, and its aimlessness detracts from its overall success as a complete film. While a fan of Pitch Perfect, I found there to be less to enjoy in this film, but I did enjoy it. Somewhat. 

The film opens with a traumatic piece-de-resistance: the self-anointed Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) mistakenly botches an aerial dance piece in front of President and Mrs. Obama, essentially flashing the entire crowd and disintegrating the reputation of the Barden Bellas. Disgraced and dishonored, the women retreat to campus where they find themselves essentially banned from recruiting and performing except for a loophole involving the national acappella competition. Freshman Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), a legacy Barden Bella, joins the crew, determined to write original songs and perform them while Beca (Anna Kendrick) struggles with her new job working for a music producer (Keegan-Michael Key) who hilariously berates his staff. And Bumper (Adam DeVine) returns to campus as a security guard and in a less adversarial role than the previous film. There is a competition, of course, and you know what's going to happen.

There's a silly German acappella group called DSM to serve as potential rivals, and two of the male characters from the first film offer cameos of sorts in throwaway plot threads. The appeal has always been of the girls bonding, practicing, and performing, and the film has its moments. It doesn't seem to have as high a joke to laughs ratio as the first film; Fat Amy has become less endearing and they cannot decide whether to make her the butt of all the jokes and flat-out ridiculous or to make her a real character with an arc. There's no "Cups" level song in my opinion to leap from this film's soundtrack, and everyone seems to be okay making a modest sequel with some laughs from the commentators and some strategically placed bear traps. I'm not sure if I should have expected more.  I valued its laughs and sheer silliness at times, and I think that David Cross's brief performance as an acappella-obsessed reclusive millionaire is wonderful.