SNOWDEN (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Sexuality/Nudity

snowden-poster

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.

snowden-1

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.

snowden-2

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).

snowden-3

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.

snowden-4

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.

snowden-5

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

INSURGENT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violence and Action throughout, some Sensuality, Thematic Elements and brief Language

Insurgent poster

Directed by: Robert Schwentke

Written by: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman & Mark Bomback

(based on the novel INSURGENT by Veronica Roth)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet, Mekhi Phifer & Ashley Judd

I was not a fan of DIVERGENT. That movie felt like an overly derivative mess that didn’t have a satisfying story, was filled with bland characters, and lowered even further by a cliché-ridden script. I really, truly hated DIVERGENT. So why am I reviewing INSURGENT? Apparently, I’m a glutton for punishment and asked people on Facebook if they wanted me to keep covering the series until its conclusion. They said yes, so here I am. INSURGENT is slightly better than DIVERGENT. It’s shorter, doesn’t waste time with unnecessary set-up, and manages to smuggle in a couple of cool action scenes. However, new problems arise in really stupid plot developments and eye-rolling moments that give Edward and Bella some competition for most unconvincing couple of the new millennium.

Insurgent 1

When last we left the land of DIVERGENT, Tris’s parents had been killed, the fabric of an unstable class system was in question, and our group of fugitive heroes had escaped from the clutches of the evil Jeanine. Tris, Four (Tris’s lover), Peter (Tris’s nemesis) and Caleb (Tris’s brother) are hiding out in peaceful territory, but soon find themselves being ruthlessly chased by Jeanine and the Dauntless. It turns out that Jeanine (or as someone has referred to her, Female President Snow) has recovered an important artifact that can only be opened by a powerful Divergent. As Tris’s few surviving loved ones are threatened, this teenage heroine discovers that she’s the only hope of opening this artifact. That’s pretty much the plot right there. There are action scenes and encounters with other Factions, but INSURGENT has about as much going on as DIVERGENT did plot-wise. It’s familiar and basic stuff that’s made to look overly complicated and unnecessarily convoluted.

Insurgent 2

INSURGENT thankfully doesn’t bother giving us a flashback set-up sequence, but still packs in plenty of young-adult clichés all over the place. The characters remain hollow and the cast appears to know that they’ve moved on to bigger things since DIVERGENT. Shailene Woodley (FAULT IN OUR STARS) is a one-note action heroine as Tris and still manages to garner plenty unintentional laughter on occasion, but also looks bored with the material she’s been given. Ansel Elgort is a woeful coward stereotype and doesn’t get a significant amount of screen time. Naomi Watts and Kate Winslet both seem present only to pick up an easy paycheck, though Blanchett gives the best performance of the whole film. The biggest blow comes in Miles Teller as the lame comic relief character who mainly serves as a convenient trigger for two plot points. Teller has recently come off of the amazing WHIPLASH and I couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy for starring in this sequel.

Insurgent 3

INSURGENT’s visuals look good and more focus is placed on the post-apocalyptic world this time around. The ideas are still dumb and overused, but watching a crumbling futuristic society was slightly more interesting than watching a teenage girl try to become a member of a club…I mean, Faction. Though there isn’t an abundance of them, INSURGENT has good action scenes. I was enjoying myself during a shoot-out, a well-done chase scene and simulations that are the best scenes in the film. This being said, there are still lots of unintentional laugh-out-loud bits. My favorite of which involved Four yelling at someone “My name is Four!” and walking away from a dinner table like a pouty brat who constantly whines about nobody understanding them. In all honesty, that might be a portion of the film’s target audience though.

Insurgent 4

The bad doesn’t stop there as the script feels downright lazy. This was based on a novel and I understand that part of these story problems birth from unoriginal source material, but there’s no excuse for how poorly written some of this stuff is. For example, there’s a huge plot point hinging on what’s inside this artifact and this is frequently brought up throughout two hours. When it’s ultimately revealed, it’s very underwhelming (not that I was expecting much to begin with) and insulting to the viewer. The discovery also more than reminded me a little of a certain other young-adult adaptation that came out last September, where that reveal also felt like a cop-out. I rolled my eyes so much during INSURGENT that I bordered on a possible hazard of vision problems.

Insurgent 5

Going off the last note of INSURGENT, I’m really not sure what else of this story needs to or can be told. This opinion stems partially from just how bad these first two movies have been, but also because I really don’t think there’s much more of a story left to tell (let alone for TWO more films!). Seeing as HUNGER GAMES is ending this year, the young-adult void has been momentarily filled by the DIVERGENT series and THE MAZE RUNNER, though I’m really looking forward to the upcoming I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. INSURGENT manages to be a miniscule hair above DIVERGENT in running time, but it’s just as convoluted and poorly executed as the first film. Now I’ll just go back to pretending that this series doesn’t exist until ALLEGIANT: Part 1 (of course!) hits next March.

Grade: D

WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexual Content/Nudity, Language and some Drug Use

WhiteBird poster

Directed by: Gregg Araki

Written by: Gregg Araki

(based on the novel WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD by Laura Kasischke)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez, Gabourey Sidibe, Thomas Jane & Angela Bassett

Shailene Woodley is on a roll in successful teenage-friendly films lately and it should come as no surprise that Magnet would capitalize on her in the marketing for WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD. Woodley is the main character and it’s definitely worth noting that the film is told through an inner monologue (kind of like DIVERGENT and FAULT IN OUR STARS). However, this is nothing like either of those films in the realm of content. WHITE BIRD is actually based on a novel aimed at a slightly older crowd. This film is a mix between a coming-of-age tale and a Hitchcock-like premise. It also feels downright exploitative in scenes trying to push sex and profanity in order to shock the viewer. This is one of a few factors that make WHITE BIRD a disappointment, but not one without some positive qualities to highlight.

WhiteBird 1

Kat Connor is seventeen years old when her mentally unstable mother, Eve, disappears in the winter of 1988. The sudden vanishing of her mom doesn’t seem to have a huge impact on Kat’s life as Eve wasn’t exactly the easiest person to get along with. After a few therapy sessions, an unexpected relationship and some developments, Kat is forced to face the actual blow her mother’s disappearance has on her life in Spring 1991. The film is told in two distinct time periods from two entirely different angles. The latter of which comes off as more realistic, convincing, and well-done than the former.

WhiteBird 2

Separating the story into two distinct halves doesn’t exactly work for a smooth plot. It feels like this film has no middle. There’s a shaky beginning where the viewer is thrust into Kat’s mind and views a few details in her life that don’t necessarily pertain to her missing mother. There’s a solid enough ending that built up a decent amount of suspense. However, the shift from 1988 to 1991 feels way too jarring to stick with. It’s like two different tones without the glue holding them together. The second half is so much stronger than the first. This may be attributed to the fact that the character of Kat has grown up a bit and the emotional impact of her mom’s mystery is holding her back from truly living. Woodley is fairly annoying in the first half, but very compelling the in the second.

WhiteBird 3

Other performers don’t seem to be giving it their all though. Two throwaway characters come in Kat’s annoying friends, while Thomas Jane feels like an unnecessarily big name to squeeze into a tiny role that only really pops up for three scenes (one of which moved the plot forward). Eva Green is over-the-top and seems to be channeling a combination of her characters from both Frank Miller adaptations she already starred in this year. Meanwhile, Christopher Meloni gives a surprisingly strong performance as Kat’s father. This character was way out there from what he usually plays. It was neat to see him pull off that range. To be fair to the cast, these characters aren’t exactly emotionally well-balanced. The dialogue feels unnatural, especially the sex conversations that seem to happen every few minutes. Shailene Woodley and Christopher Meloni deliver the best performances in this film.

WhiteBird 4

Most of the positive qualities come in a rather dark final act that felt like it belonged in a far better film. This is where the Hitchcock-ish premise actually milked some tension. The conclusion itself might feel a bit lazy in speed-feeding the viewer scenes that might have been more affective if they played out in a decent span of running time, but the build-up is rock solid. I’ve heard that the movie deviates from the novel it’s based on in more ways than one (two of which regard the conclusion), so I can’t honestly say if the ending of the book might have worked better than the ending of the film. There’s a seed of a really awesome story in WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD. It’s left to die rather than grown into a beautiful film about dark subject matter.

WhiteBird 5

The bad outweighs the good here, but doesn’t necessarily bring the whole movie down. I’m disappointed with WHITE BIRD, but it has its moments. Shailene Woodley is a solid actress in nearly everything I’ve seen her in thus far (DIVERGENT aside). Christopher Meloni is also worth watching, because he slips into his character with such skill that I didn’t recognize him for a while. The closing act is compelling, while the opening act is shaky at best. There is nothing to link these two halves in a satisfying way though. WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD is only worth watching if you want to see Shailene Woodley in a more provocative role, but I can’t outright recommend this one.

Grade: C-

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Elements, some Sexuality and brief Strong Language

Fault poster

Directed by: Josh Boone

Written by: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber

(based on the novel THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia & Willem Dafoe

Love stories are as old as time itself. It makes sense that Romance is the most overpopulated movie genre of all time. At this point, everything has withered into standard clichés, a bad soundtrack made up of forgettable pop songs, and a specific formula that has become tedious to say the least. There’s no doubt in my mind that nearly every young couple in America will be going on a date this weekend to FAULT IN OUR STARS and the popularity of the novel backs up that claim. In this case, that’s not a bad thing. FAULT is the most honest romance movie I’ve seen in a long while. It does hit a few clichés while following a well-worn formula, but circumstances have been shaken up in such a way that this is a refreshing love story that is worth your time.

MCDFAIN FE003

Hazel Lancaster has been battling cancer for a good portion of her life and as a result, is hooked up to a portable oxygen tank. Reluctantly attending group therapy sessions at the insistence of her mother, Hazel meets Gus. He’s a cancer survivor, but lost his leg in the process of beating the disease. The two begin a friendship that becomes something far more special. It seems as if they were made for each other, but Hazel is hesitant on loving Gus for fear of her imminent untimely death being a “grenade” (as she describes it) to those around her. However, Gus doesn’t care and what follows is a beautifully told love story that, although being predictable, makes for a sad and ultimately uplifting experience.

MCDFAIN FE005

FAULT IN OUR STARS raises a lot of good points about love and life itself. One being that death is bound to happen to all of us, so why not make ourselves the best person we can become and enjoy life while it lasts. It’s unusual to see a teenage-oriented novel being adapted to the big screen with such a sense of maturity and respect for the filmgoer (as well as the fans of the book itself). There’s certain to be a lot of people who will snicker at the idea of sitting through FAULT IN OUR STARS and chalking it up as another one-dimensional love story in the vein of those lame Nicholas Sparks movies. That’s absolutely not the case here. This is far more along the same thought-probing and emotional lines of something like PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, where young life isn’t glamorized and these characters go through plenty of real-world problems.

MCDFAIN FE002

The film isn’t without a few faults of its own. There’s a corny factor that comes in a few scenes that seem particularly made to get teenage girls to swoon. Luckily, these moments can be counted on a single hand and don’t last very long. Everything progresses naturally enough to be believable, even if the storyline is predictable in a lot of ways. FAULT’s biggest problem is Ansel Elgort’s role of Gus. He comes off as a good-natured individual that seems to genuinely care about Hazel and is deeply in love with her. However, the boy just comes off as too perfect in a lot of areas. It’s clear that this person is a construction of a writer and actor on the screen. It’s every girl’s dream to find a guy as perfect as Gus, but nobody is as flawless as him. We only see the good things about Gus and when there’s one moment that showcases him on a bit of a more upsetting level it’s sugar-coated. To reveal only one side about such a pivotal character in this story feels a little dishonest to the viewer, especially in a film that nails nearly everything else with such realistic accuracy.

FaultStars 4

Elgort’s performance is good, but I just have a problem with how the character was written. The real praise deservedly goes to Shailene Woodley as Hazel. Amazing is putting it lightly, she becomes this character and makes us feel for her every second in the film. I loved watching her and this seemed like a real person brought to the screen. The same can be said for everybody else, but Woodley is nothing short of astounding in her role. I really didn’t like her in DIVERGENT, but she did a 180 degree turn for this film (ironically an adaptation of another young adult novel, albeit completely different in quality). Her career is destined for great things, if she keeps up quality roles like this one.

MCDFAIN FE004

Rest assured that plenty of people will be crying by the time the credits rolled (bring lots of tissues). I never burst into tears myself, but I admittedly came close to it (I can be an emotional bastard when handed the right material). Props to FAULT IN OUR STARS for being the most realistic romance in the past decade. There are a few faults in this movie seen in Gus’s one-sided character, a sense of familiarity, and a couple of clichéd scenes. Besides these minor issues, everything in the movie feels natural and plays out as such. There is a formula being followed, but it’s being followed in a fresh way. For all of these things, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is remarkable!

Grade: B+

DIVERGENT (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 19 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violence and Action, Thematic Elements and some Sensuality

Divergent poster

Directed by: Neil Burger

Written by: Evan Daugherty & Vanessa Taylor

(based on the novel DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ansel Elgort, Ray Stevenson, Kate Winslet, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn & Ashley Judd

The vast well of material found in young adult fiction has been used a lot in the past few years. Since TWILIGHT was coming to a close and HARRY POTTER ended a decade-long reign at the box office, studios have been searching for the next big franchise to target the teenage demographic. THE HUNGER GAMES has become the new champion, but that isn’t stopping big budget attempts to start new film series out of any middle-school-oriented novel that comes out. Take for example the latest in this trend, DIVERGENT. Despite some shaky looking promotional material for this film, I was optimistic that it might be a good flick. After all, the book was so immensely popular that people had to be seeing something in the material. This all being said, DIVERGENT is a jumbled mess of scrambled parts from other (mostly more successful) plots that we’ve seen in the last few years.

Divergent 1

In a dystopian future, Chicago is the city left standing. The general population is separated into five separate groups (ala THE HUNGER GAMES) to keep the peace. Each citizen goes through a test that shows them which group best suits their personality. Tris is the teenage daughter in a family that belong to the vegan/hippie faction of society. Upon taking the test, it turns out that she’s a Divergent. This label is placed on individuals seen as a threats because they test positive for all five factions. Tris keeps this to herself and decides to join the law enforcement faction. This tests both her physical endurance and her mental strength. Bullied by some and facing the possibility of winding up factionless (e.g. homeless), Tris goes through rigorous training to find a place in her new faction. She also falls in love with Four (one of her trainers). The two do their best to avoid suspicion of Tris’s Divergent nature as an escalating war is on the horizon between factions.

Divergent 2

The ideas behind the plot of DIVERGENT aren’t bad ones. We’ve seen many of these clichéd scenarios in recent years (e.g. THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS, THE HOST, ENDER’S GAME, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, I AM NUMBER FOUR, etc.). It’s the construction of the whole affair that’s a convoluted mess. In THE HUNGER GAMES series, ENDER’S GAME, and (hell, even) THE HOST, the dystopian future was explored just enough to satisfy the curiosity of the viewer. In DIVERGENT, the script seems focused on the wrong elements of the story. This is a dystopian society, but there are still tattoo parlors in underground dwellings (I almost laughed out loud when I saw this). A lot of things don’t make any sense in this world recovering from a supposed apocalyptic war. To add insult to injury, a whole lot of sappy pop songs make up the soundtrack. What else can you expect from a film whose target demographic is teenage girls?

MCDDIVE EC005

I would equate a majority of DIVERGENT to the recent adaptation of ENDER’S GAME. Imagine if that film had been based purely on Ender’s training for the war and hadn’t had a satisfying payoff. That’s exactly what DIVERGENT does and why it fails at being compelling. You could have summed up half of the film in 10 or 20 minutes. Even a montage would have been more satisfying. The movie adaptation feels that every single stage of Tris’s training is essential to watch. This makes for an over-two-hour running time that feels far longer than it should in every possible way. This might make for a compelling read, but as a film there’s plenty of editing that was needed. It’s not interesting to watch a teenage girl train for most of a movie where far more exciting events felt glossed over in the final third.

MCDDIVE EC025

The less said about performances and character, the better. Some tired clichés are used in the fast-paced ridiculous climax of the film. In fact, one of them is used twice (with unintentionally hilarious results). There are also discussions of politics and a deeper meaning that isn’t nearly as deep as some people claim it is. The message of how dangerous conformity can be was hammered in frequently. There were about three speeches (two of which were delivered from a scenery chewing Kate Winslet) preaching about the evils of free will and human nature. Had it not been for the giggling overly excited teenage girls in the packed auditorium, I was tempted to yell at the screen “We get it! Be more subtle!” That is the kind of film DIVERGENT is though. It’s the kind of movie that has its target audience cheering during so-called fight scenes, clapping as the end credits roll, and one girl notably yelled “Yes!” when a predictable kiss came. It’s successful in that sense, but that doesn’t make it a good movie!

Divergent 5

Perhaps, I might be optimistic in INSURGENT (coming out next year, because Lionsgate is pumping this franchise without even knowing how successful it will wind up being). After all, I liked CATCHING FIRE a whole lot more than the first HUNGER GAMES. In the first 30 minutes, I thought that DIVERGENT was a decent enough flick rounding about a C+. By about an hour in, that grade had been lowered to a C-. By the time the melodramatic, downright terrible film concluded it was at a…

Grade: D

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑