A Trip To The Movies – “Citizenfour” 11.22.14

I chose to take a trip out to the movies to see this for a number of different reasons. First, was that it was executive produced by Steven Soderbergh. Which who anybody that knows me well enough knows that anything he gives his stamp of approval on is an automatic must see. Second, was the aggregate score ratings that I was seeing on websites like imdb.com and metacritic.com. What struck me about this film in particular was that usually when a film is weeks away from its release, its aggregate score is much higher only to then drop considerably a few days prior when it’s screened for all critics. In the case of this film I saw that scores were actually rising weeks after its release. Which is both unusual and incredibly rare, that I figured what I was witnessing here was a film that was slowly building an audience by mere word of mouth. At that point I decided to go ahead and make plans to see it. Lastly, I had noticed that Oscar winning composers Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails and British composer Atticus Ross, fresh off their string of David Fincher films (“The Social Network”, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, and this year’s “Gone Girl”), wrote the music for it. I thought that maybe I was on to something truly special here. But with something that was slightly shrouded in mystery since like I do with most films, including documentaries, I rely solely on who the director is for feature films and aggregate scores/ratings for documentaries. Not really knowing anything about it, even the topic or subject that which it chose to focus on, this was yet another film that I pretty much walked into with a blank slate hoping that I would be surprised.

The films opens with Glenn Greenwald, a British journalist for The Guardian, who’s comminicating with a man via the internet in a number of emails about potentially covering a story about one of the biggest news scandals of the 21st century which he hopes to expose. We then meet the second and single most integral person in covering the story, documentarian filmmaker Laura Poitras. After a series of instructions on where to find said source who hopes to expose the story both Poitras and Greenwald wind up in Hong Kong. It is there that we meet 29-year old Edward Snowden, a former NSA (National Security Agency) intelligence officer for the United States who has fled with numerous files of information showing the government’s role in breaking the law by setting up illegal wiretaps on almost every big telecommunication conglomerate in the United States. Which also happens to be one of the biggest human rights and civil liberties violations in the history of this country. Certainly that of the 21st century. Through a series of interviews in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room where he is hiding Poitras, Greenwald, and another journalist strategically plan out how they are going to leak this information to the rest of the world. As each day passes more and more information is collected, as is with each interview we listen to Snowden reveals more and more information about the shocking abuses of power of national security. While preparing himself for the inevitable witch hunt that is sure to follow once the information comes out.

This is an extraordinary documentary that resembles just as much of a non-fiction feature film that it does a conventional documentary. What I mean by that it seems to change the criteria of what we expect from the documentary format as a medium and includes elements that seem like they are straight out of a feature film. Unlike a conventional documentary, we are presented with evidence based facts coming straight from the subject himself, as it plays itself out in real time. Usually more conventional types of documentaries either talk about the subject post-humously with a serious of interviews from people who either know or knew about them thereby creating an agenda or a subjective opinion that sometimes is forced upon the viewer. This documentary is entirely different than almost any one that I’ve seen because we are shown the trajectory of the leaking of information exactly as it happened. That and we are given complete access to the whole proceeding, as the obviously very talented director Poitras is one of 2 sources; Greenwald being the other, who spend every hour of every day documenting the incredibly brilliant 29-year old Snowden. Something that is so rarely seen in documentaries. Particularly political ones that has this much riding on the line. This leak of information about illegal abuses of power by the NSA and other counterintelligence agencies is baffling. Because we are given unprecendented access to all of the information straight from the source we start to really understand how huge the whole thing really is. The interviews and access to information that Snowden provides us with is very well presented and pre-calculated. As the story unfolds and the information is leaked, the situation gets more and more desperate for Snowden, as almost every counterintelligemnce agency from America to Japan starts to target him as the main suspect, and pretty soon neither the director Poitras or the journalist Greenwald are allowed contact with him. As the entire counterintelligence world starts to slowly inch closer and closer to locating him. You yourself as an audience viewer experience the same (well, almost) level of fear and paranoia that everybody who’s involved with the whistleblower seems to be experiencing. Which is the film’s greatest strength, to put you right there in real time and acts as an almost emotional rollercoaster as the events before you take place. There were times that I was so engaged, with my mind’s light switch on tracing the story as it unfolded, that I literally had a physical response to it in that I felt my body temperature getting colder and just about every hair on my body raise up. Like something out of a psychological thriller or borderline horror movie. The last third of the film where the news starts to go viral and the tension surmounts to such a high level was probably the first time I had feelings similar to that since Soderbergh’s “Contagion” (2011). Another film that explores how fast something can spread (in the case of that film a disease) since we are all wired in technologically on a global scale. Regardless of how you felt about Snowden at the time this information was exposed, or are like me and were a Snowden “novice” before seeing the film. This is an essential piece of cinema that practically reinvents the documentary format, and bridges the gap between that of it and feature film. All the while presenting us with one of the most shocking revelations of the violations of civil liberties that’s taken place in post-9/11 America. This is a brilliant documentary that is one of the year’s best behind the Steve James Roger Ebert documentary “Life Itself” and is sure to please both feature film moviegoers and fans of documentaries alike. This is one that is sure to pick up a Best Documentary nomination at the 2015 Oscars. See it and I can assure you with no doubt in my mind that you won’t be left disappointed.

[A-]

Review: ‘Finding Vivian Maier’ 8.3.14

I had been wanting to see this for quite some time as a couple people I know had seen it (where it’s still showing in theaters even despite it having just been released on DVD). Apparently people have been coming out in droves to see it. Anyway you, like me, probably know very little (if anything at all) about the film. As is with many documentaries, there’s only a select audience that relies heavily on word-of-mouth because it gets little to no publicity or advertising. This was and is one of those rare gems that come along every once in awhile. A documentary that takes you on a journey of self-discovery while reliving a life of another’s. The bare bones synopsis of the film, is that it focuses on the life and work of Vivian Maier, an incredibly fascinating character and one of the most important “street” photographers of the 20th century. What’s so interesting is that like so many great artists, her work was not discovered until after her death, for reasons that were very personal and intentionally done by her. What amazed me so much about this documentary, was its ability to tell one story, only to switch gears halfway through. Building steam and momentum along the way, and surprising me at every corner. This is a compelling character study of a genius who is celebrated in death, more than she could ever (or better yet wanted), to have been in life. Right up there with ‘Life Itself’ with this year’s best documentaries. And one that I would be VERY surprised if we don’t see on the list of nominations for Best Documentary Film at next year’s Oscars.

Grade: B+

Review: ‘The Missing Picture’ 6.12.14

Pretty disappointing seeing as this was picked from amongst the lot around the world as one of the 5 nominees for the 2014 Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. This, while very unique and interesting in concept, just never fully grabbed me in a way like a movie of this nature should. It involves a narrator, speaking about the atrocities that took place during the Cambodian revolution in the 1970’s. It did a fairly good job at depicting the dreadful events that occurred as a result of the Khyme Regime. A totalitarian one that killed many people in its wake. What I particularly did not enjoy so much about it was the way in which it infused archival footage interspliced with still footage of figurines that the director used in place of the footage. While also trying to make it poetic and metaphorical in its use of the figurines and voice over narration. This, while obviously effective for some, given its “glowing” reviews and Oscar nomination, didn’t quite connect with me on any kind of personal level. I was always feel when you’re depicting reenactments and/or dramatizations of moments in History, this is an essential component in order for it to be effective. This is one, despite the many accolades it may have recieved, you may want to skip out on.

Grade: C

Review: ‘Life Itself’ 8.12.14

This was an unbeliveable documentary into the life and death of Roger Ebert. The man who one could say “invented” film criticism, or at least brought it to the masses. I had been waiting for this one for awhile now for a couple of different reasons. One, as a student of film, there’s not a more fascinating subject than that of Ebert. The guy lived for movies. His entire framework for how he viewed the world was imprinted by the thousands (I think they say in the movie 10,000) movies he saw in his lifetime, and that was particularly interesting to me. The second reason is I grew up as a kid watching both Siskel and Ebert and the movies as well as Ebert and Roeper and the movies. Each week tuning in excited to see which films they were going to be reviewing, the back-and-forth of opposing opinions (which I try to encourage with both of you), as well as the “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” grading system which was his/their trademark. Lastly, being a big fan of Steve James, who I couldn’t possibly think of a better documentarian to cover the subject. Seeing as Ebert (as he did with a lot of filmmakers, including Martin Scorcese) put James on the international film community map with his glowing reviews of his 1994 ‘Hoop Dreams’ (and who eventually went on to provide the DVD commentary for). So I looked at it as the ultimate tribute/testament for James to be able to give that back.

As for the documentary itself…I liked so many different elements of it that it’s hard for me to sum up even in lengthy email format such as this one. I enjoyed learning about what I didn’t know, specifically how he got his job at the Chicago-Sun Times, his battle with alcoholism, and the fact that he stayed single until the age of 50, at which point he met the love of his life (and ultimate savior), Chaz. I also thought another plus of it was how they didn’t shy away from the end of Ebert’s life, which as Ebert even said “it wouldn’t be a real documentary if you didn’t show this part”. Which is unbelievably heartwrenching to watch him go through surgeries, to losing his jaw, to not being able to speak and who’s only way of communication was through gestures and speaking through a computer. Though whereas some people might fall into despair or depression, Ebert found ways to spin his unfortunate situation into a positive thing. Like starting a blog for example where at one point someone says he was doing some of his best writing on. This is a guy that was going to perservere and not hang the towel. Which I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for.
I also enjoyed the focus on his relationship with Gene Siskel, which was a very turmultuous one. These guys came from 2 different walks of life which greatly impacted the way in which they interacted with one another, especially when it came to film criticism. There’s some great archival footage of them between takes on their show bickering at one another. Yet for all of the ups and mostly downs in their relationship. It was obvious they had nothing but the utmost mutual respect and admiration for one another. That, and Siskel’s death had a very profound effect on the way in which Ebert faced his own adversity later in life.
The only omission in the film that knocked it down a point or 2 for me was no archival footage, not even a mention, of Richard Roeper. I thought about it and to me that would be like making a Michael Jordon documentary and totally exluding his foray into baseball. Why the decision to omit Roeper from the documentary entirely will always remain a mystery to me.
Still, a compelling, thoroughly engaging, thought provoking, emotional roller coaster of a ride, of one of the most important figures in the history of film, and one that is sure to pick up a nomination at next year’s Oscars for Best Documentary.
Grade: A