“Snowden” movie review

snowdenA political docudrama that only Stone could pull off so effectively! Once again, acclaimed director Oliver Stone brings another socio-political issue and figure to the screen. Whether you’re of the school of thought that Edward Snowden should be charged with espionage or heralded as a hero, this film will definitely challenge your point of view. But, isn’t that what Stone is known for??? More than a docudrama of the life of Snowden, Stone’s film is a dramatization of the state of government surveillance. One could argue that surveillance is the star of the film, not Snowden. The intent of the film is not to cast blame on either Snowden or the U.S. Government, but to cast doubt. The simple placement of doubt can be far more powerful than blatantly passing judgment or blame. If there was any ‘doubt’ that Stone is one of the most important filmmakers covering modern historic events, then this film will cast aside any remaining doubt. Few directors, have been so successful in taking cold, hard facts and transforming them into a story fit for cinema. The success of this film is attributed to the incredible lead talent. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley have excellent chemistry on screen. Accompanied by a strong cast of supporting players such as Zachary Quinto, Nicholas Cage, Scott Eastwood, Tom Wilkinson, and Melissa Leo, this film’s cast will have your attention until the final fade to black.

Oliver Stone’s Snowden takes you on a journey through the significant events of Snowden’s life from 2006 to 2013 when he was finally granted temporary asylum in Russia. The reason why his name is so famous or infamous–that depends on which school of thought you are from–is not new and even blasé at this point; but, the events of his professional and personal life that culminated in the leak and disclosure of NSA (National Security Administration) surveillance secrets and programs are not as widely known. Disillusioned with his career as a highly sought after top digital media and intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) begins to wrestle with being able to justify and reconcile the rampant surveillance data that the NSA is collecting and how it affects both private citizens as well as those who are being hunted for crimes against humanity and the U.S. After deciding that it was best to go public with the information, he is then on the run of his life. A traitor to some and a hero to others, this film will prompt you to perhaps rethink the actions of Snowden.

Although this film has slow pacing, for those who are interested in the life of the–to borrow from J. Jonah Jameson–hero or menace, Stone’s docudrama will successfully hook you and draw you into this world of intelligenceSnowden is a particularly interesting docudrama because this film essentially contains three smaller movies–a three legged stool if you will. There is the most dominant story of Snowden discovering the copious amount of secret government surveillance data being collected by his software. Next, we have the personal romantic story of the ups and downs of his relationship with the liberal, artistic, amateur photographer Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) and how his professional life gently affected their relationship. And finally, the story that made Snowden a household name: his leaking and dissemination of top secret NSA surveillance methods and everything else Snowden knew about questionable NSA methods of collection. For most people, that third story is all anyone knows. But, in order to truly get an idea of the pressure Snowden must have been feeling, it is imprint to take the other two stories into account. That is precisely what Stone did with this film. Stone’s version of the life and times of Snowden takes the other Snowden film Citizen Four a step further to truly be able to analyze all the known elements.

There are many excellent qualities in the writing and visual storytelling in this film, but there are two areas that appear to falter or suffer in the translation of these now historic events. The focus of the movie is definitely on what led Snowden to leak the NSA secrets, but there is a significant amount of time spent on the relationship between Snowden and Mills. One could argue that the strain of his relationship with Mills contributed to his eventual disclosure of the NSA secrets. Cinematically speaking, the strategic placement of the personal life of Snowden is important because the audience needs a break from the flat panel displays, computer code, and “geek-speak.” Unfortunately, Stone and his co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald did not carefully contract and craft the personal dialog as well as they did the info tech and military dialog. In many ways, the forced personal story of the relationship between Snowden and Mills comes off as a forced element from producers to make the film more relatable to those who are not AS interested in the military side of the story and more interested in the outside/personal influences that affected Snowden’s actions. It’s not unlike fans wanting to know the personal details of a celebrity’s life. Unfortunately, this human interest subplot does not play out as well as the two dominant stories at the forefront of this film. That being said, both Gordon-Levitt and Woodley are extremely committed to the characters/historic figures they are portraying. I cannot think of two other actors who could have been better suited to play these roles. Gordon-Levitt nailed Snowden’s voice, body language, and nuances.

The other area of this film that appears to suffer is the structure–the map, if you will. Any first year film student can tell you that flashback movies can be dangerous. Often times, the flashback is used as a copout plot device that simply plays off as lazy writing. From a technical perspective, a movie that uses the flashback as a means to tell the story is referred to as a nonlinear film. Now, I am not stating that Stone’s movie is lazily written and structured; however, I do not feel that the constant back and forth between the past and then-present were handled delicately or strategically enough. Most of the time, one of the comments I have about movies that rely upon the flashback as a plot device to tell the story is ‘Why is there a need for a flashback? Just let the main story BE the main story.’ The flashback concept works for some films like The NotebookFried Green Tomatoes, or IT; but it does not work for others such as Ladder 49 or The Weight of Water. Most of the time, a flashback is used out of convenience to fill runtime; meanwhile, the audience usually doesn’t care about the past as much as what is going to happen next in the present. Stone and Fitzgerald are mostly successful as keeping the audience entertained, caring about, and longing for what happens next in BOTH the past and present; however, I found the movie to go between both the present and past too much, almost to the point that it was a little confusing. Opening with Snowden and the small group of journalists was a great way to begin, but I feel that the story of Snowden would have been a little more gripping if we were able to watch the events from 2006 to 2013 unfold without present-day interruptions. Still, the ending that was selected for the film was both effective and strategic.

Oliver Stone’s Snowden is not a film for everyone. For those who enjoy socio-political movies or docudramas of historic figures, then you will likely enjoy it! If you are looking for an action-packed spy thriller, then is this not for you. Unlike some movies that truly ARE better experienced on the big screen, this is one that is equally experienced as well on the big or small screen.

“The Divergent Series: Allegiant part 1” movie review

AllegiantPossibly a strong finish for the Divergent Games! Of course, we won’t know just how well it finishes until the second part. Surprisingly, The Divergent Series: Allegiant part 1 provides fans with a good start to a well-executed conclusion. After the weak sequel, it was quite unexpected that the series would begin to complete this YA series on such a high note. Unlike the disappointing conclusion of The Hunger GamesAllegiant brings back your favorite characters you love and love to hate in a very satisfying ending in the dystopian adventure to rescue a people from themselves. At the end of the day, the Divergent series will never be as successful or generate the same fandom as The Hunger Games; but simply comparing the last two films in both franchises, this is clearly the superior finish (or should be). Although Roth’s socio-political themes and subtext were fairly clear, all be it still weak, in the first two films, the message is a little vague and incoherent in Allegiant. Two YA franchises down and one to go. We will just have to see what lies in store for the Maze Runner series. Just like the Divergent series has a week middle, hopefully the weak sequel in The Maze Runner will pave the way for a strong conclusion as well. One thing is for sure, Allegiant contains far more action than the previous films which almost makes the weak and still completely explained plot worth the approximate 2-hour run time.

The first part of the final chapter in the Divergent Series takes us beyond the wall into a desolate wasteland. Follow Beatrice/Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Peter (Miles Teller), and Christina (Zoe Kravitz) as they embark on a journey to seek help from the outside in order to stop the civil war in dystopian Chicago (or modern day Detroit). With newly asserted leader of the faction less system Evelyn (Naomi Watts) and Amity turned Allegiant leader Johanna (Octavia Spencer) at odds with one another, war is brewing in the streets and all hell is about to break loose. Barely escaping Evelyn’s security team, Tris and her band are rescued by a team from an organization of pure bloods who oversees the “Chicago Experiment.” This group of researchers and scientists led by David (Jeff Daniels) recruits Tris and her team to develop a plan to save Chicago, or so they think. When Four discovers what is really going on, he must convince Tris and the rest of her band of rebels to make right what is going incredibly wrong.

For me, and I am sure other critics, analyzing this particular series, The Hunger Games, and Maze Runner gets boring. Because, for the most part, they all have the same plot, same fallacies, and similar subtext. They are all extremely socio-political methods to spread the message that only teenagers are special and are capable of saving the world from corrupt adults. Although these movies are aimed at Generation Z (anyone born after 1995), they still attract attention from Y/Millennials (~1982-1994) and Generation Xers (~1965-1981). That is important because Generation Z does not have the spending power that generations X and Y do. In order to maximize the income potential of the films, the studios have to appeal to Generation Zers in such a way that it will also bring their Millennial friends and potentially Generation X parents. Since schools are constantly preaching the message that teenagers are the future, they are special, and uncontaminated by the greed of the world, it makes sense to create films based on books that carry that theme. The negative side effect to this approach is creating a generation(s) that automatically distrust adults and their respective decisions regarding the environment, politics, and society. Just as Allegiant depicts what happens when there is such great division among a people who view the approach to peace so very differently will devolve into a war-like state, it’s entirely possible that reinforcing this division between Generation Z and X/Y could symbolically arrive at the same precipice.

The production value and design in Allegiant definitely outshines the prior two installments. That is important due to the fact that Roth’s political subtext definitely becomes a little muddled in this last chapter. Although there is definitely way too much cheesy CGI, it is far less than the previous film. And other than some of the outlandish technology used in the story, for the most part, the defense, security, and surveillance technology used by the various characters makes sense and is perfectly believable in their universe. There is even a real reference to 21st century earth’s scientists experimenting with the human genome. That helps to create a sense of futuristic realism in the Divergent universe. One of the biggest problems I have with the plot is the still unexplained history of how exactly the Chicago experiment began. Perhaps the director and writers did not feel it was necessary to provide a clear history through character exposition, but I am still a little confused as to how the Pure Bloods and Damaged became so incredibly separate. Another thing, if there are thousands (if not millions) of Pure Bloods in existence, then why use the Chicago Experiment as a method to see if a Pure Blood can be born out of all of it??? I guess that is why it’s not worth overly analyzing films such as this one.

For what it’s worth, Allegiant is an exciting start to the last chapter in the Divergent Series! Far more entertaining than the last one. If you were disappointed by Mockingjay Part 2 than rest assured that you will definitely enjoy the conclusion of this franchise. Not a bad way to spend your Spring Break or an afternoon over the weekend. But, I wouldn’t bother seeing this film in IMAX or 3D. However, I can see some benefit to the experience of this film by watching it in a D-Box auditorium.

Insurgent

InsurgentFaction before blood, or in this case, genre before story. In a series/franchise that struggles to separate itself from other YA (Young Adult) novel-turned-movies, Insurgent fails to live up to the expectation and hype that it generated. To her credit, Shailene Woodley (Tris) gives it her very best; but, her constant struggle to support the dystopian narrative is quite evident. The quality of the movie should come of no surprise due to the teaser trailer’s sub-par, CGI-driven, look. For the lovers of digital effects, this movie is in no short supply. However, it is this type of over-the-top and, at times, gaudy special effects that creates a flashy movie nearly devoid of a substantial plot. In trilogies and franchises, it is vitally important that the middle film(s) advances the plot and highlights crises, chaos, confusion, and emotion instead of just being filler to bridge the gap between the beginning and the end. Clearly, this installment in the Divergent series serves as further evidence that sequels often suffer and rarely live up to the audience expectations setup by the previous movie.

This installment of the Divergent series entitled Insurgent takes us back to the walled city of former Chicago. After the massacre of Abnegation, Erudite leader Jeanine Matthew (Kate Winslet) asserts that the Dauntless faction is responsible for the deaths of nearly all Abnegation. Furthermore, she connects the Divergents to Dauntless and issues orders that they are to be seized or killed because of the threat they impose on life in the “peaceful” city. Tris (Woodley) and Four (Theo James) desperately search for allies in the looming war that appears to be manifesting with every passing day. Both Jeanine and Tris endeavor to uncover the answer as to what was so important that Tris’ parents sacrificed themselves. Many secrets will be revealed to friend and foe as the quest for answers to the past ultimately point to the future of the factioned and factionless. In this quest for freedom and power, new power-hungry peoples will rise and seemingly unsurmountable challenges will face our heroes as the people of ruined Chicago attempt to bring about peace to the city and eliminate any and all threats to the way of life that has been such a part of its citizens for many decades.

I don’t typically look to the YA genre for impeccable acting and narratives rich with subtext and substance; but I do look for high concept, well-crafted movies that keep my attention for a couple of hours. Just because a movie fits into the YA-Dystopian genre, doesn’t mean that it has to follow every trope and hesitate to introduce new concepts. Unfortunately, Insurgent just seems to be like most other movies in this genre and runs the risk of boring the audience. Keeping the audience’s attention is crucial, especially when many members of the audience already know what’s going to happen due to having read the books. Even though I believe that a movie based on a work of literature (or a play) needs to keep true to the source material, it is also equally important for the writer and/or director to add something new–something unexpected–to keep anticipation high and build suspense as the story unfolds.

Just like a singular cinematic narrative must, under most circumstances, follow the classic three-act structure, the same is also true for a trilogy. Paralleling the respective three-act structure in each individual film in a trilogy, the trilogy itself is encumbered to follow in suit. If you are unfamiliar, the three act structure consists of: The Setup, The Confrontation, followed by The Resolution (or realization). Within each of the acts are various plot points; and between the first & second and second & third acts, there are two crucially important, and major, plot twists to transition and advance the plot. In an ideal and well-produced trilogy, the first movie should be the “setup,” the second installment should serve as the majority of the “confrontation,” and the third movie should highlight the “resolution.” What we have with Insurgent is a movie that pretty much doesn’t advance the plot nearly as much as it should have. This leads to the poor pacing and mostly hollow narrative. There is some meat there, but not nearly enough to fill two hours. In other words, it feels as if the movie mostly just treads water instead of heading for the finish line.

Insurgent definitely contains some entertainment value; but, I cannot say that it was an entertaining as the previous installment. I have not read the books, but if this movie keeps true to the novel, then the writers and director should have taken the creative liberty and adding in material that would have increased the visual storytelling quality of the film, without breaking from the very essence of the story. Hopefully, this filler movie has paved the way for a dramatic and exciting finish with the next movie Allegiant. Comparing it to other sequels, it fairs about the same; but, if you have some extra time this weekend, it could serve to keep you mildly entertained for a couple of hours.