(Video on-Demand, February 2017) I expect that we’ll continue to talk about Edward Snowden and whether he’s a hero or villain for a long while: Snowden is young, and currently being used as a pawn in geopolitical games … his place in history hasn’t been finalized yet. (I said the same three years ago about Julian Assange in the context of The Fifth Estate, and my opinion of Assange today is strikingly different than what it was back then—people’s lives aren’t limited to a single act.) Still, it takes someone like Oliver Stone to boldly delve into events barely more than three years old and try to come to some kind of a conclusion. As a look at Snowden-the-man, the film is definitely on its subject’s side: He’s shown as a disappointed idealist, a patriot whose opinions eventually diverge from the system he’s been asked to serve. Technical wizard, sympathetic boyfriend, fugitive of circumstances: Snowden is all of those and the film creates a clean dramatic arc for him as he’s invited at the centre of the American Intelligence Community and comes to dislike what he sees. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is very good as Snowden, incarnating a real-life subject to the point where the film can afford to feature the real Snowden showing up in the film’s coda. It’s also kind of amazing to see Zachary Quinto and Melissa Leo play real people that we can recognize (respectively: Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitras). Stone’s direction is assured, and his script manages to make a complex subject matter accessible even to non-specialists: As an exploration of IT security matters, Snowden is better than most similar films, with acceptable deviations from reality as we know it now. (It’s also, crucially, consistent with Citizenfour.) It’s relatively entertaining, although not without a few lengthier sections and some overly dramatic moments. Snowden is not quite as visually daring as The Fifth Estate (nor is Snowden as fascinating/infuriating as Assange), but it’s a more controlled film, and one that, I suspect, will stand the test of time quite a bit better. But that will depend quite a bit on what happens to Snowden next…
(On Cable TV, July 2016) By this time in his career, Seth Roger has such a defined persona that “Seth Rogen does a Christmas movie” is enough to suggest a fairly accurate picture of The Night Before. We’re going to see crudeness (especially penile jokes), copious drug use, dumb jokes, a paean to male friendship and some anxiety about (finally) growing up. Roughly half of Rogen’s movies in the past ten years have played variations on the same themes and this latest one isn’t any different. For all of the emotional scaffolding about three friends wondering whether their Christmas traditions are holding them together or holding them back, this is really an excuse for Christmas-themed drug jokes and assorted shenanigans. It does work reasonably well, but usually thanks to the actors more than the jokes themselves. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon, and, yes, Seth Rogen all bring something extra to their roles even when they’re just doing what they usually do best. (Well, that’s not exactly true for Michael Shannon, who seems to be enjoying himself in a coarser role than usual.) Mindy Kaling, Ilana Glazer, James Franco and Miley Cyrus also show up in small but striking roles. Some of the comic set-pieces work well enough, and the film’s conclusion is just as gooey-reassuring as we’d like in a Christmas movie. As far as holiday classic go, The Night Before aspires to a place alongside Harold and Kumar’s 3D Christmas and Bad Santa, which isn’t terrible company when the syrupy nature of year-end celebrations becomes a bit too much to bear. “Seth Rogen does Christmas movie” it is, then.
(On Cable TV, April 2015) The incredible story of Philippe Petit, who in 1974 managed to walk a wire between the two towers of the just-completed World Trade Center, was so exceptionally well covered in the 2008 documentary Man on Wire that a docu-fictional take on the same event didn’t feel necessary. But get Robert Zemeckis in charge of The Walk, give him a decent budget, put Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role and suddenly, things look far more promising. Zemeckis, always impressively able to augment reality with special effects, here uses a joyously expressionistic tone to reflect Petit’s unbounded enthusiasm as his character (standing on the Statue of Liberty, a postcard-perfect view of pre-2001 Manhattan behind him) explains his life and the wire-walking caper. While some of The Walk’s first half-hour drags a bit (“Oh no, a flashback within a flashback!” is a bad sign in any film, and this one is no exception), the visually inventive tone of the film works well at keeping our interest until the film’s standout sequence, a vertiginous set-piece showing Petit walking from one tower to another … and then again and again, gently mocking policemen sent to arrest him, bowing to his audience and paying homage to the towers for making this stunt possible. It’s hard not to smile while watching The Walk, so infectious is Petit’s exuberant joie-de-vivre. Gordon-Levitt had a tough role in trying to come across credibly as Petit (the real-life character, as demonstrated in Man on Wire, is simply incredible), but he manages it well … and his Parisian French is so well done at times that I wondered if he was dubbed. (But no, it turns out he speaks French almost fluently, and worked hard at nailing the accent for his performance.) Combined to the physical component of his roles, it makes for an exceptional performance. Nearly as amazing is Zemeckis, seamlessly using special effects and practical sets to create now-impossible sights. The luminosity of the 1974 New York portrayed in the film is spectacular, and the camera moves enabled by the virtual sets are enough to make viewers agog. (See it on the biggest screen you can, unless you easily get vertigo) Perhaps best of all is the feeling that The Walk complements rather than duplicates or nullifies Man on Wire: It’s a terrific story, and Zemeckis had the required means to present the story as best he could.
(On TV, December 2014) Romantic comedies are too-often considered from the point of view of the woman that it’s still a bit of a novelty when one is told from the point of view of the man. It’s even rarer to tell a very funny film about a relationship that doesn’t end well. I’m not spoiling much about the film given its definitive title and non-linear narration, in which we jump back and forth between the seasons of a romance, and know that it’s not going to end with the union of the protagonists. How we get there, however, it more than part of the charm. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (offering an interesting counterpoint to his latter role in Don Jon) plays the protagonist, a young man infatuated with the idea of romantic love and having the misfortune of loving someone who definitely doesn’t. The film is told from his perspective so closely that the female lead character isn’t much more than a superficial façade behind which he stuffs his hopes and dreams. (Ironic points for casting Zooey Deschannel, often better liked for her persona than her specific characters) That it doesn’t quite work like that is part of the film’s ironies. Fortunately, the writing of the film is crisp and hip (musical number? Sure!), blending modern cynicism with very real heartbreak. That it works, and ends on a relatively high note (not only punning on the film’s title, but appropriately – for a budding architect- climaxing within Los Angeles’ Bradbury building) is an eloquent testimony to the film’s peppiness, from two likable lead actors to a style that throws everything on-screen in a dizzying montage of narration, pop music, flights of fancy and plain old good moviemaking –it’s an impressive debut for director Marc Webb, who should take a break from the meaningless Spider-Man films and get back to these kind of films. Occasionally hipsterish, (500) Days of Summer nonetheless feels like an original take on an overdone genre, and more than worth a look even for those who think they are tired of romantic comedies.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) Cancer is usually the domain of the made-for-TV sentimental tear-jerker aimed at women, not the kind of quasi-comedies aimed at young men. But 50/50 takes the bet that it has something to say about cancer and friendship between young men and the result is far more impressive than you’d think. Joseph Gordon Lewitt stars as a young radio producer who discovers that he’s got a rare and potentially fatal form of cancer. Seth Rogen brings most of the laughs as his crude friend trying to cheer him up. (The film squarely earns one of its most emotional moments when the protagonist discovers the highlighted best intentions behind his best friend’s cheerful facade.) Meanwhile, Anna Kendrick gets a thankless role as a grief therapist who, against nearly all imaginable ethical guidelines, falls for her patient. As a refreshingly younger and brasher take on the familiar cancer narrative, 50/50 ends up reaching a new audience in an honest way, and the result is both hilarious and affecting.
(Video on Demand, January 2013) There are quite a few things that annoy me about Looper: The inanity of its time-traveling premise, the slap-dash way its future is assembled, the way the two main stories of the film don’t seem to mesh seamlessly, the lengthy time-out in the third quarter of the film… all elements that could and should have been fixed. But these doubts having been expressed, let us not be distracted from the fact that Looper remains one of the strongest SF films of 2012 in a relatively crowded field: It’s a solid movie, a confident effort that doesn’t spoon-feed its audience and engages with provocative questions about our relationship with ourselves (in the first plot-line) and our duty to the future (in the second). Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the younger version of a character also played by Bruce Willis, but it’s writer/director Rian Johnson who emerges as the big winner of the film: not only does he turn in an accomplished piece of cinema, he also plays with SF archetypes in a refreshing matter-of-fact fashion that allows him to use those elements to get to the core of the drama he wants to set up. Looper goes effortlessly from the streets to the cornfields, striking a Midwest SF atmosphere that feels refreshingly different from many of the other recent SF blockbusters. While the script has weaker points, it manages to present a few complex ideas cleanly, and its second half’s sense of moral uncertainty is uncanny in the best sense. For SF fans who are tired of the same old visually-spectacular-but-dramatically-hollow products, Looper is a small triumph and another entry in the mini-boom of good original cinematic SF since District 9.
(Video on Demand, January 2013) There are times during Premium Rush where it’s not clear whether we’re watching a straightforward action thriller, or a glorification of the New York bike courier subculture. But why can’t it be both? After all, it’s practically a given that if you want to write an easy story set in any subculture, you bring in money, violence, chases and corrupt cops. Here, Joseph Gordon-Levitt easily buffers his credentials as a hot young actor equally capable of playing action hero as he is in delivering sometimes-awkward dialogue: he plays the best of the Manhattan couriers, soon involved way over his head as a hilariously intense Michael Shannon chases him down. It’s all slap-and-dash by-the-number plotting, but writer/director David Koepp keeps things moving at a satisfying pace through interludes zooming around New York, hopping back and forth in time as the glory and danger of being an NYC bike courier is graphically described. There’s some satisfying black comedy in the way our protagonist sees the world, and some meta-amusement once viewers understand the way the cycling set-pieces are lined up in a row: Here’s some Central Park racing, here’s stunting in a warehouse; here’s a hip reference to flash-mobbing… You’d think that 2012 was a bit late in the movie-making game to deliver such blunt material, but Premium Rush is that kind of film: no subtext, straightforward dialogue, convenient coincidences and half-hearted plot justifications. (Well, maybe not even half-hearted –No one ever thinks of using the subway in this movie.) Does it work? Sure, but only in the barest sense: It moves along, delivers the goods with a bit of visual flourish and Gordon-Levitt manages to be not annoying in a generally annoying role. But that’s it: If you’re thinking about Premium Rush as being anything but a glossy Hollywood look into bike messenger subculture, it’s disappointing. The film doesn’t sustain a serious second-guessing of its assumptions, and relies on stock clichés far too often to be respectable. Simply put, it could have been quite a bit better –either as a thriller or as a look into the subculture.
(In theaters, July 2010) It’s tough to review Christopher Nolan’s Inception without sounding like a gushing fanboy, but here goes: One of the finest SF movies in years (even so soon after Avatar and District 9), Inception cashes Nolan’s Dark Knight chips and goes on to deliver a masterful cinematic experience that combines big-budget entertainment, thematic depth, weighty characters and splendid action sequences. Good enough for you? While it’s not a perfect film (lengthy snow sequence, insufficient exploitation of dream logic, some weak actors/roles), Inception wipes the floor with other big-budget action films thanks to unusually ambitious goals, pitch-perfect sequences, savvy storytelling and multiple levels of understanding. It’s a measure of how successful it is that much of it appears simple, even obvious. But when the film starts with “it’s a dream within a dream” and works its way to five (maybe six) levels of overlapping reality without losing its audience, it’s hard not to be impressed. Ever since Memento (with high points at The Prestige and The Dark Knight), Nolan has proved himself to be an unusually skilled writer/director with a gift for infusing popular entertainment with weighty thematic consideration. So it is that Inception effortlessly touches upon dream logic, moviemaking shortcuts, personal grief, human mythmaking, memetic madness and subconscious sabotage without seeming to break a sweat, all the while delivering a heist film according to the well-worn conventions of the subgenre. Watching the film is like falling into a pleasant trance, emerging from the experience a lot like the characters coming back to reality. Subtle and not-so-subtle touches add to the experience, such as a deliriously effective shifting-gravity fight sequence, an iconic sequence in which Paris serves as an exposition background, and a frame-perfect last shot that will please both those who want a definitive ending and those who don’t. Brainier viewers will be pleased to watch a film that finally dares viewers to keep up. Science Fiction fans will be particularly satisfied to see a film that uses SF devices for their emotional power while delivering some good old-fashioned sense-of-wonder at interlocking realities. While the actors are a bit hit-and-miss (I’m still not convinced by Leonardo DiCaprio, nor by Ellen Page’s mushy-mouthed lack of affect, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fantastic as the picture’s lead action hero), the real star is Nolan as screenwriter and director, because Inception is beautifully controlled from beginning to end, combining the precision of The Prestige with the non-linear storytelling of Memento and the action rhythm of The Dark Knight. Inception is, in a carefully chosen word, amazing, and a shoo-in for year’s end top-10 lists. Expect to see it more than once.