(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-Lewitt 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 Lewitt, 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 Lewitt 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. Joseph Gordon-Lewitt 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 Cable TV, December 2014) Has Joseph Gordon-Lewitt become the spokesman for an entire generation? That’s a lot of pressure to put on a guy’s shoulders, but in comparing Don Jon with (500) Days of Summer, it’s hard to avoid feeling that in-between those two characters, he’s tackling how modern young men feel about love. But whereas his (500) Days of Summer character was a hopeless romantic, his Don Jon is a cynical, stunted ladies’ man addicted to pornography, to a point where it’s cutting him off from the world. It takes an encounter with an equally-addicted romantic movie fan (Scarlett Johanssen, playing against type as an unlikable urban princess) for him to grow up a bit. That Gordon-Lewitt would take on such a role is impressive enough, but to find out that he both wrote and directed the film makes it even more impressive. Don Jon is at its best in its first two-thirds, as the story remains relatable and sharp-witted observational (the Swiffer scene is the one that remains in my mind weeks after seeing the film); the last third gets a bit preachy and far-fetched to its own detriment. I would have liked to see a bit more commentary on the toxic pull of romantic comedies and a little bit less of the ending’s easy sentimentalism. Still, as a directorial debut Don Jon is self-assured enough to be interesting, with good performances from good actors and a script that’s both funny and insightful. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait too long for Gordon-Lewitt’ next film as a writer/director.
(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-Lewitt 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-Lewitt 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-Lewitt 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.