SNOWDEN (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Sexuality/Nudity

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Directed by: Oliver Stone

Written by: Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone

(based on the books THE SNOWDEN FILES by Luke Harding and TIME OF THE OCTOPUS by Anatoly Kucherena)

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Rhys Ifans & Nicolas Cage

I’ve been looking forward to SNOWDEN for a while now. Though director/writer Oliver Stone has suffered a mediocre slump in his output, this controversial story seemed like the kick in the pants that he needed to reinvigorate his filmography. This movie was originally supposed to be released on Christmas 2015, but for some reason it was delayed until May 2016, until it eventually was postponed until September. SNOWDEN has finally hit theaters with minimal promotion, mixed reviews, and a handful of screenings per theater. There’s a positive side to this though. My Tuesday night showing was sold-out and audience word-of-mouth has been extremely positive. Remarkably, this biopic doesn’t choose a side in the conflict, but rather presents points that Snowden might be a hero, a traitor, or a bit of both. This political thriller leaves that aspect for the viewer to decide.

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In June 2013, NSA contractor Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) leaked classified documents to the press that exposed government surveillance programs that infringed on the civil rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens. This led to treason charges and a hot debate over security vs. freedom that still hasn’t fully been resolved in the public eye. This film spans from 2004 to 2013 in showing Snowden’s injured exit from the military, experience in the CIA, relationship with his girlfriend, and time in the NSA that ultimately pushes him to sacrifice everything to deliver information to the public.

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Whether you think he’s a traitor who deserves execution or a hero who should be celebrated, this film presents itself as a balanced character study of Edward Snowden. Though I’ve seen reviewers claim that this movie merely rehashes real-life events and nothing more, I wouldn’t consider that to be a negative when the events are incredibly interesting and troubling. This cinematic version of Edward Snowden is grounded on a human level thanks to a heavily developed relationship with his opposites-attract photographer girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proven himself to be an excellent actor in the past and that certainly doesn’t change here as he becomes Edward Snowden. From the mannerisms to the distinct way of speaking, I forgot that I was watching Levitt. He’s that good. Shailene Woodley (who’s had dramatic ups and angsty downs) gives her best work to date as Lindsay Mills. The quality performances don’t end with those two though, because Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, and Zachary Quinto are great as three journalists with Snowden confidential info. Scott Eastwood shows up as a temperamental NSA employee. Timothy Olyphant plays a smarmy CIA agent. Rhys Ifans shines as Snowden’s mentor and “friend,” which makes later scenes even more intense to watch. Finally, Nicolas Cage delivers his best performance in a decade with five minutes of screen time as a CIA instructor.

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SNOWDEN’s narrative is non-linear, opening with 2013’s fateful meeting of journalists and then flashing back to 2004. The film progressively shifts between Snowden’s interviews with the three reporters back to his progress through the CIA and NSA. This makes for a captivating experience as Stone is cramming nine eventful years into just over two hours. It’s also interesting to watch the past timeline catch up with the 2013 wraparound. Though Oliver Stone’s visual style can occasionally be a bit much (did we really need a lovey-dovey scene projected onto Snowden’s hotel window?), SNOWDEN also weaves in actual footage and news clips. There are clips of both current presidential candidates voicing (unsurprisingly) negative opinions about him, pieces of actual news stories from the leak and Obama’s reactions to the fallout. Be sure to stay through the first half of the credits for extra tidbits.

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Though it also functions as a dramatic biopic, SNOWDEN plays out like a paranoid thriller that’s made even more intense by this story being factual. We’d be naïve not to think that the NSA is still up to stuff and that we’re still being watched on a daily basis. However, Stone’s film wisely presents fuel for both sides of the argument. There’s talk of the modern battlefield being everywhere, but also about the sacrifice of freedom for security. It’s a huge gray area with no easy answers and the film doesn’t choose a side. Instead, Oliver Stone’s return-to-form is sure to keep you thinking about it long after the credits have rolled, could inspire new feelings towards one of America’s most controversial figures, and may make you paranoid enough to put a Band-Aid over your webcam.

Grade: A

SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Violence and Action throughout, Disturbing Behavior, Suggestive Content and Language

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Directed by: David Ayer

Written by: David Ayer

(based on the SUICIDE SQUAD comics by John Ostrander)

Starring: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Cara Delevingne, Karen Fukuhara, Adam Beach, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood & Ben Affleck

SUICIDE SQUAD has been one of my most anticipated films of 2016. It should be mentioned that I wasn’t exactly sold on Jared Leto’s Joker and strongly disliked BATMAN v SUPERMAN. Still, there was something about this supervillain team-up film that had me stoked! The marketing was great and showcased crazy energy that would be essential for a movie like this. Though generally negative reviews have gotten this third DC Extended Cinematic Universe entry rated lower than BATMAN v SUPERMAN on Rotten Tomatoes, I had a blast watching SUICIDE SQUAD. The film isn’t free of flaws (all of which I’ll discuss in a moment), but it also has a lot of things to like! So far, this is my favorite installment of the new DC Cinematic Universe.

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In response to the world’s growing superhuman phenomenon, government operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles a team of very bad people who she believes can do some good. This secret task force, dubbed the Suicide Squad, is led by hard-headed veteran Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) with sword-wielding Katana (Karen Fukuhara) at his side. Under Flagg’s command are: psycho-clown Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), sharp-shooter Deadshot (Will Smith), human torch El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), drunken bloke Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), human-reptile Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and grappling expert Slipknot (Adam Beach). This ragtag team of supervillains must work together if they wish to save the world from the evil Enchantress (Cara Delevingne).

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The main quality that sets SUICIDE SQUAD apart from tons of other superhero films is that these protagonists are out-and-out supervillains. These characters committed horrible crimes in their past and don’t necessarily feel bad about any of the evil things they’ve done. Instead of saving the day for the right reasons and out of the goodness of their hearts, these bad guys wish to regain their freedom and aren’t above contemplating plenty of ways to murder Flagg and escape. Instead of being a story of good vs. evil, SUICIDE SQUAD is all about bad vs. worse.

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As far as the team members go, there are definite stand-outs, cool supporting characters and disappointingly glorified cameos. The best performances come from Margot Robbie as fan favorite Harley Quinn and Will Smith as Deadshot. Both of these Batman villains have never been featured in a live-action blockbuster before and they make a grand big-screen entrance here. Margot Robbie remarkably encapsulates every mannerism that Harley Quinn has in the comics and cartoons, while also doing a perfect voice for the character. Will Smith actually gains a bit of sympathy as Deadshot by playing the assassin as a loving father who happens to earn money from heartlessly executing people.

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Jay Hernandez delivers unexpected humanity as former gangster turned peaceful pyro El Diablo. This character was given more development than the other supporting characters thanks to a well-executed tragic backstory. El Diablo’s reluctance to engage in violence makes him an interesting character to watch. Meanwhile, Jai Courtney brings his best performance yet (not exactly high praise) as comical Captain Boomerang. This character got the biggest laughs out of me, even more than Harley Quinn. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Killer Croc doesn’t get much to do aside from looking cool in the background. Meanwhile, Viola Davis is solid as amoral Amanda Waller and Joel Kinnaman is likable enough as Rick Flagg.

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Though it’s a lot of fun and very entertaining, SUICIDE SQUAD has major problems in two big areas: the villain and the editing. Concerning the former, Enchantress is cool to look at. The constant special effects surrounding her, the mindless drones she controls, and the magical havoc are all very neat to the eyes. However, her motivation is nothing more than the typical world domination that we’ve already seen plenty of times from other supervillains, especially in the past couple of years (e.g. Ultron, Dr. Doom, and Apocalypse). In the end, she’s a generic villain with an awesome look.

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As for the sloppy editing, that’s a direct result of Warner Brothers’ desperation after BATMAN v SUPERMAN slightly underperformed at the box office. In an effort to combat the possibility of SUICIDE SQUAD flopping and disappointing more people, multiple cuts of this movie were made and then glued together in the messy theatrical version. This isn’t annoying to a degree where the movie is outright terrible or bad, but it’s definitely noticeable. For instance, Viola Davis gets five seconds of voice-over narration in the prologue and never receives any more throughout the entire running time. In a far more egregious decision, every Joker scene seems butchered or totally excised from the film. I still can’t tell you what I honestly thought of Jared Leto’s new take on the clown prince of crime, because I’ve less than five minutes of screen time from him.

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Even with its undeniable problems taken into consideration, SUICIDE SQUAD remains a thoroughly enjoyable summer movie filled with energy, cool visuals and humor that works. It’s a crazy comic book flick that definitely could (and should) have been better, but functions on being fun and entertaining! I’ll take that over dull, dreary and bloated any day of the week!

Grade: B

ENTER NOWHERE (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and brief Violence

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Directed by: Jack Heller

Written by: Shawn Christensen & Jason Dolan

Starring: Scott Eastwood, Sara Paxton, Katherine Waterston, Shaun Sipos & Christopher Denham

ENTER NOWHERE sprung onto my radar after its premiere at 2011’s Screamfest. The premise sounded somewhat similar to Jean-Paul Sarte’s diabolical NO EXIT (which I would love to see adapted into cinematic form), so I was anticipating something in the same sort of vein. The age-old line of “Hell is other people.” could be used to great effect in a claustrophobic thriller about three people seemingly stuck in the middle of nowhere with only each other as company. However, that’s not what ENTER NOWHERE is at all. Instead, this plays out as a sort of morality play mixed with a TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode that somehow wound up being stretched to a feature-length running time. The direct-to-video B-flick clearly had ambition behind it, but botches that up through a messy screenplay. Though it has a couple of small merits, everything else about the film is subpar.

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Jody is a mulleted thief who makes a living by robbing convenience stores. Samantha is a nervous wife who has recently become pregnant. Tom is a bland and sarcastic good guy who just wants to help those around him. These three people all inexplicably wind up stranded at a cabin in the middle of nowhere. To make matters even worse, the bleak wooded landscape surrounding them doesn’t appear to have a clear way out. In fact, it almost seems as if the trails they take are leading them in circles. As their food and water rations dwindle, the trio discover that being lost in the middle of nowhere is not the only thing that connects them and things get really strange (and borderline stupid) from there on out.

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In our post-M. Night Shyamalan age, ENTER NOWHERE suffers from being a project that was seemingly constructed all around a single twist. Instead of forming fleshed out characters (about two details are given for each and then repeatedly harped upon for remainder of the film), NOWHERE hinges on its big reveal. I thought I had the film figured out from frame one and to its credit, that was not the case. The surprise is actually fairly original and creative, but the execution is muddled and poorly thought out. It’s clear that ENTER NOWHERE was a super low-budget effort from the very beginning and the production values are shoddy to say the least. There are issues with sound quality (bad mic work, stock music) and all of the acting is mediocre. The latter is especially true of Sara Paxton, who seems downright miscast in her role as the tough girl (complete with a forced overuse of profanity). The biggest problems with ENTER NOWHERE come once the big reveal has occurred. The movie doesn’t come up with a satisfying way of explaining its twist (no spoilers will be given here) and wanders into outright pointless territory as soon as the surprise hits.

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ENTER NOWHERE gets credit for having a cool twist, but the whole film is built upon that twist. As a result it feels like a micro-budget Shyamalan wannabe that happens to center around a trio of bland characters. I wasn’t expecting a masterpiece or anything particularly great, but I was hoping that ENTER NOWHERE might wind up as an enjoyable hidden gem. Instead, it’s yet another in a long line of cheap direct-to-video fare that should remain forgotten and overlooked. Skip it, especially now that it’s recently hit in the UK under the title of THE HAUNTING OF BLACK WOOD (which makes absolutely no sense given the context of the film).

Grade: D+

FURY (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sequences of War Violence, some Grisly Images, and Language throughout

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Directed by: David Ayer

Written by: David Ayer

Starring: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Scott Eastwood & Xavier Samuel

FURY, a historical fictional WWII film, looked like it was something along the lines of U-571 or BEHIND ENEMY LINES from the marketing. The trailers and TV spots gave a sense of this was a glossed over slice of what WWII was like and that Americans always save the day no matter what insurmountable odds they face. I wasn’t the only one with these impressions as I also found that other friends felt the same way. Turns out, we couldn’t have been more wrong. FURY is a gritty, realistic, and dark look at the horrors of war. It almost feels like the second half of FULL METAL JACKET relocated a few decades earlier to WWII. This is a bleak, depressing, but wholly rewarding film!

FURY, from left: Xavier Samuel, Brad Pitt, 2014. ©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

In the final year of WWII, the tank crew “Fury” make their way across enemy lines in Germany. In desperation that he’s losing the war, Hitler has ordered that all men, women, and children to take up arms and fight. The US military forces are going town to town, killing the opposition and capturing those who surrender peacefully. Along the way, plenty of people on both sides are lost. Private Norman Ellison is a pencil pushing clerk who has been ordered to serve as Don “Wardaddy” Collier’s (head of Fury) new bow gunner. Inexperienced and unprepared for the carnage that lies ahead, Norman gets a nasty wake-up call and must find a place within his new tank family as they do whatever it takes to complete their mission to the best of their abilities.

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Director/writer David Ayer (SABOTAGE) nails one important quality right out of the gate. These characters are excellent and performances from stellar cast members bring to them life. Some of these guys may seem a little iffy at first (especially Jon Bernthal) but they do grow on you. The sad truth is that these characters are hardened by seeing “what a man can do to another man” (as a remarkable Shia LaBeouf states early on). I warmed up to each person in varying degrees. It felt like these people had been together for so long that there was an honest family dynamic between them. Logan Lerman is outstanding as Norman, maintaining a kind of innocence in spite of how dire circumstances get. The stand-out performance belongs to Brad Pitt as “Wardaddy.” He may seem like a tough instructor and collected from the outside, but we’re given brief glimpses of him almost emotionally breaking down away from his crew. He is deeply affected by the violent repetition around him, but will deliberately walk away from his fellow officers to hide it in order to maintain his tough appearance.

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FURY also has a thick, gloomy atmosphere that never once eases the viewer into feeling safe (the state of mind that the characters are always in). Though movies can never fully relate to reality, FURY seems to go out of its way to capture just how horrific war can be (at least on the screen). There’s a lot of gore in this film. I knew it was going to be bloody and brutal (R rating and all), but we actually see flattened corpses, limbs and heads exploding, pieces of gore that are sizeable enough to tell what they used to be (a piece of someone’s face in the opening 10 minutes). This is disturbing stuff, as it should be. Like FULL METAL JACKET, there’s no use in prettying up what is a horrific time to begin with. We never see the sun shine in FURY, clouds always loom over every town, field and road. This gives off a further feeling of bleakness.

FURY, Shia LaBeouf, 2014. ph: Giles Keyte/©Columbia Pictures Entertainment/courtesy Everett

Another fantastic quality in FURY is how well-paced the movie is. At over two hours, the running time whizzes by. It’s not as if the film is all combat sequences and battlefields either, because there’s a solid stretch where we see the aftermath of the U.S. forces taking a town. It leads to some revealing emotional scenes that tell a lot about both Norman and Wardaddy, but shows how hardened some of the other men are. Nothing particularly graphic or violent happens in this long sequence, but its gripping nonetheless. The finale is also fantastic and not portrayed in a way that feels like it’s a blockbuster action sequence or a piece of “America can do anything” propaganda. It puts us inside the tank with the men and kept me gripping my armrests.

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FURY is a grim, brutal war movie that delivers in every area. The characters might not initially seem like the kind of people you want to watch for two hours, but I warmed up to all of them over the course of the movie. The violence is shocking, but never feels exploitative. We see the consequences of killing a man and the tension is as thick as the clouds covering the enemy territory. FURY may not be a happy experience, but it’s a good and fulfilling one. I can safely recommend FURY as one of the best war movies to come along in years.

Grade: A

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