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-]

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Review – ‘Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger’ 10.18.14

Extra Large Movie Poster Image for Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger

In what was probably my second most anticipated documentary of the year behind “Life Itself”. Joe Berlinger’s (“Paradise Lost” Trilogy) “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Burgler” tells the story of James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious South Boston crime boss who Martin Scorcese based Jack Nicholson’s character off of in his film “The Departed”. Brought to us by CNN films, a brand new subsidiary of CNN that focuses primarily on documentary features, and who has released both last year’s excellent and haunting “Blackfish” and this year’s “Life Itself” (currently at my #1 spot for both best documentary and best film of the year). They seem to be at the current forefront of financing specific documentaries so that they can be released to a wider audience. And so far, I can say I am very impressed with the types of documentaries that they’re producing. But even more reason why I was excited because this was by documentarian Joe Berlinger, the director of such acclaimed films as his superb 1992 documentary “Brother’s Keeper”, which focused on a the trial of a semi-illiterate farmer, the 1996, 2000, and 2011 “Paradise Lost” Trilogy, about the unfortunate long and drawn out trial of the West Memphis 3. Which mind you are three of some of the best documentaries I have ever seen. Then 2004’s probing look at the band Metallica in “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster”, and finally 2009’s intense examination of the South American oil trade “Crude”. Berlinger is right up there with the caliber of documentary filmmakers like Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”), Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”), Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), Errol Morris (“The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”), James Marsh (“Man on Wire”), and Ken Burns (“The Central Park 5”). All documentary filmmakers who are at the top of their game and whose documentaries almost never fail to disappoint.

The film starts off by introducing us to several South Boston residents, most of whom were either eye witnesses or victims of families who were terrorized by “Whitey” (aka James Burgler otherwise known as “The Irish Godfather”) who reigned and was king of the organized crime world in the United States for almost 25 years going back to the mid seventies and staying in power until the late nineties, which at that point he went on the lam for 13 years until his capture in 2011. Whitey was the boss of the infamous Walter Hill gang, a band of Boston wiseguys who were completely and utterly ruthless, menacing, and terrorizing in equal respects, and who also were responsible for dozens of murders. Whitey’s ring grew so big that by the late nineties to early aughts he landed a #2 spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted. Second to that of only Osama Bin Laden. But here’s the kicker – he had also been an FBI informant for years. Whitey was let free to run wild and become the head of the most notorious gang the United States has ever seen. All while under the knowing eye of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Only to be informed by the same organization he helped out to essentially flee, then land on their list of Most Wanted, until his capture in 2011. Where at the age of 83 he would go on to be tried for 19 murders. The documentary focuses on Whitey’s rise, his reign of terror, his relationship with the FBI, wiseguys, informants, trial lawyers, eye witnesses, and families of victims; mostly in and around the Boston area. And asks the central question – how could a Mob boss who headed a gang that was so ruthless possibly have also worked for the United States government?

There is a little something for everyone in this documentary. Being in that I have always been fascinated by the Mob. Like most guys I know who were at a young age. I was always interested in people like Al Capone and John Gotti. That and I loved films like Frances Ford Coppola’s exemplary “Godfather” Trilogy (1972, 1974, and 1990), Brian DePalma’s 1987 film “The Untouchables”, and what still might be arguably the best film made about the Mob – Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas” (1990). Anybody with even the faintest interest in any of the above people or films will most likely find this documentary worthwhile. It’s filled with informative interviews from members of the Boston community who were in some way involved with Whitey, be it by association with the Mob or by ways of being a victim of them. It also contains some great archival footage, voice recordings, and eye witness testimonies. Furthermore it’s a compelling and thought provoking look at both his rise and fall as well as the deep, multi-layered levels of government corruption. Particularly by that of the FBI. The amount of protection this guy received from one of our supposed to be most trusted government organizations is appalling. Lastly, I thought it did a fairly good comprehensive job at depicting Whitey’s run from his rise to his fall, as well as the court proceedings that took place when he eventually was captured in 2011. The only couple of criticisms I had were at times it felt like an overload of information that I personally had a hard time following. Similar to when I watch Asian films about crime families. Just the sheer amount of people involved from all aspects, while important to depict, can often times be overwhelming and can wind up confusing the viewer. Which at a few points happened to me here. It also felt slightly one-sided, in that most all of the testimony you see or hear from people in the film are from people who are against Whitey and want to see him put in jail. Which is totally understandable. I just thought to myself there had to still be some Whitey supporters that they could have interviewed to go along with it which would have made it seem a bit more balanced. Those two criticisms aside, this is a well thought out, comprehensive, thought provoking depiction of one of the most notorious crime bosses in United States history and his own
government who protected him.

Grade: B

Review: ‘How I Live Now’ 9.22.14

Scotland born director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”, “Marley”) is one in a slew of directors who work in both the feature film and documentary formats. Some notable others including the granddaddy of the crop, Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”, “Rescue Dawn”, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, “The Bad Leiutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans” ), followed closely by Spike Lee (“Do The Right Thing”, “4 Little Girls”, “Inside Man”, “When The Levees Broke”), Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”, “Life Itself”, “Prefontaine”), James Marsh (“Man on Wire”, “Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980“), and Joe Berlinger (The “Paradise Lost” Trilogy, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2”) just to name a few. Macdonald is that rare breed of filmmaker like Herzog or Lee that are just as proficient making feature films as they are documentaries. In the documentary format, Macdonald wowed myself with both 2003’s “Touching the Void” and 2012’s “Marley”. As for the feature format, I found myself both really liking 2006’s Academy Award winning “The Last King of Scotland” as well as 2009’s underappreciated “State of Play”. So I saw it as only be befitting that I would see whatever it was that he came out with next.

We first meet up with the central character, Daisy (yet another bold performance by Saoirse Ronan), as she’s getting off a plane in what appears to be a war torn London. She is picked up and driven to some sort of compound, where shortly after we learn is inhabited by the sister of her estranged father, who seems to be some sort of extremist fighter. Daisy is a closed off, irritable, angst ridden teenager; who has a very difficult time warming up to all of her many cousins who live at the house. She also has quite a few phobias. She’s deathly afraid of bacteria, washes her hands incessantly, and has a mind that seems to be in a constant state of overdrive. While at the compound, she meets a young man named Eddie (played my George McKay), who has an almost unspoken language and communication with animals and who, coincidentally, can also hear Daisy’s thoughts. She begins to take a liking to and forms a bond with him. But just as soon as they can fall in love, a radio announcement is received declaring a Civil War throughout all of Britain. The compound soon becomes under attack, and the military detains them splitting the men from the women. Diasy declares that no matter what situation she finds herself in or no matter how far they take her, she will come back to find her true love. Her younger cousin and she are then taken to a kind of foster home where they plan their escape. At a pivotal moment when they’re just about to do so without any risk of harm or violence, a devastating turn of events takes place at a checkpoint, and the two are left to flee which is when their journey really begins.

I really have nothing but good things to say about this film. Even though I did find the ending to be a bit contrived and stayed a little bit too close to Hollywood tropes. From an artistic stand point, Macdonald does a magnificient job at filming the war ravaged English countryside, capturing some stunning photography in both the beauty of its nature and the devastation of its ruin. Macdonald also expertly jumbles a film that takes on many parts – it’s part War film, part Romance, part Drama, and part Action/post-apocalyptic film in equal measures. As mentioned above it also features a fine performances by its two leads, Saoirse Ronan and George McKay, who also provide the center of the love story and whose relationship and on screen chemistry feels genuine and without artifice.  I also found that it was both engaging and moved at somewhat of a quick pace while evoking a sense of urgency, dread, and suspense throughout the entire proceeding. My one or two criticisms of it had to do mostly with the ending as I mentioned above. I felt like it laid the sentiment on a tad too thick and came across as slightly overmelodramatic. That aside, this was a solid film that I had a lot of fun with and enjoyed many aspects of it. Thus proving once again my belief that if a director does you right more often times than he does you wrong, then chances are that much greater that you’ll walk away satisfied with their next film.

Grade: B

 

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