Movie Review: “Snowden”

Starring
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Zachary Quinto, Melisssa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Joely Richardson
Director
Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone has been more hit than miss as a filmmaker over the past few years, but even his most successful work sometimes leaves a little more to be desired. Stone is a filmmaker that likes to take big swings with his movies – the ending of “Snowden” being a perfect example – and sometimes they don’t always payoff. In the case of “Snowden,” however, most of them do, making this biopic/thriller the director’s most consistent movie he’s made since 1999’s “Any Given Sunday.”

With this true story, Stone tackles one of recent history’s most divisive figures: Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the man who exposed the NSA’s illegal surveillance of American citizens. The film opens several years before those events, when he was a proud Republican and patriot who wanted to fight in the Iraq War, only to be discharged after breaking his legs in basic training. In 2006, Edward meets and falls in love with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), and shortly thereafter, begins working in the CIA’s global communications division, where he immediately questions his orders. For a while, he keeps his mouth shut and his concerns to himself, but after working on the NSA’s massive cyberforce project, Edward can no longer keep what he’s doing a secret while unsuspecting Americans are spied on by their own government. In 2013, Edward travels to Hong Kong with a hard drive containing classified documents exposing the NSA, which he shares with Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), as well as the documentary filmmaker behind “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo). Once the story breaks, Snowden becomes a fugitive without a home.

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Movie Review: “Allegiant”

Starring
Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Zoe Kravitz, Naomi Watts, Maggie Q, Jeff Daniels
Director
Robert Schwentke

As the “Divergent” series unfolds, it feels more and more like a giant bluff. Now in the homestretch, Veronica Roth’s not-too-distant dystopian nightmare is slowly devolving into a needlessly complicated metaphor for high school. There are factions, they keep to themselves, and once you switch factions, you cannot visit anyone from your previous faction. There is melodrama by the truckload. One boy does not like the special attention his girl is getting from the grown-ups, who are grooming her for Bigger, More Important Things. He is jealous. High school, high school, high school.

Society has collapsed inside the walled city of Chicago, where Evelyn (Naomi Watts), leader of the Factionless army and mother of Dauntless badass Four (Theo James), has wrested control and is holding public trials of those who did the bidding of now-dead Erudite leader Jeanine. This includes Caleb (Ansel Elgort), brother of Dauntless heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley). Tris and Four use back channels to spring Caleb from custody, and the three, along with fellow Dauntless Christina (Zoe Kravitz) and Peter (Miles Teller), climb the wall to discover a godforsaken wasteland. This wasteland turns out to be partly artificial, and the group is rescued by a group working for the Bureau, situated where O’Hare Airport used to be. O’Hare, of course, doesn’t mean anything to anyone in the film. That information is solely for the audience’s benefit. As Caleb himself says, “What’s an airport?”

The Bureau is run by David (Jeff Daniels), who has been watching Tris’ entire life from afar like she’s on a really warped version of “The Truman Show.” David declares that Tris is the only “pure” divergent in the entire city, while everyone else, factionless or not, is “damaged.” David wants to take Tris to meet his superiors, in order to prove that his Chicago “experiment” is working, and that they are on the verge of a breakthrough. Meanwhile, war is erupting in Chicago between the Factionless army and the once-peaceful Amity faction, renamed Allegiant. That should matter to David, right?

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Movie Review: “Insurgent”

Starring
Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Naomi Watts, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer
Director
Robert Schwentke

No movie franchise embodies the term “meh” better than the “Divergent” tetralogy, because although the second installment is a competently made sci-fi thriller, it suffers from many of the same problems as the last movie – namely, a troubling lack of excitement, suspense and emotion. You’d think the fact that “Insurgent” isn’t bogged down by the same tedious exposition would allow the film to dig deeper into its characters and mythology, but you don’t learn much more about the main players by the end of the movie than when it began. That might be forgiven if author Veronica Roth’s universe was the least bit interesting, but the whole faction concept is so silly and contrived that it’s a wonder no one thought to question it sooner. And to think there’s an entire faction dedicated to intelligence.

“Insurgent” picks up several days after the events of the first film, with Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) denying involvement in the attack on Abnegation, instead placing the blame on Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James) and the rest of their sympathizers, who have since sought refuge with Amity. When Jeanine recovers a mysterious box containing a message from the colony’s founding fathers that requires a Divergent to unlock it, she sends bulldogs Eric (Jai Courtney) and Max (Mekhi Phifer) to round up Divergents to put through the box’s rigorous testing process. Meanwhile, Tris and Four unite their Dauntless friends with the factionless rebels – which is led by Four’s presumed-dead mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts) – to take down Jeanine and the whole faction system.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that “special one” Tris is the key to unlocking the film’s MacGuffin, which apparently doesn’t even appear in Roth’s novel, because there isn’t a single original idea in the movie. The generic plot device doesn’t serve much purpose, either, other than to keep Jeanine busy and provide a staging ground for the special effects-heavy final act that puts Tris through a series of virtual reality simulations designed to test her aptitude in all five factions. The problem, however, is that with the exception of the final 20 minutes and a few small character moments, “Insurgent” doesn’t do enough to progress the overarching story to warrant an entire film. The big reveal at the end will undoubtedly change the direction of the series going forward, and hopefully for the better, but the real question is whether anyone will still care by that point.

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Movie Review: “Divergent”

Starring
Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, Miles Teller, Ray Stevenson, Tony Goldwyn
Director
Neil Burger

The young adult craze (“Twilight,” “The Hunger Games”) has recently crashed (“Beautiful Creatures,” “Vampire Academy,” “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones”), and the media has decided that the fate of future young adult film adaptations will live and die on the box office returns of “Divergent.” This is patently unfair, of course; “The Hunger Games” sold 14 times as many books as “Vampire Academy,” so why should anyone expect anything less with their film adaptations? Answer: they shouldn’t, but somehow this is now “Divergent’s” problem. The good news is that “Divergent” should fare much better than the three ‘crashed’ movies. It’s intriguing, and asks valid questions about when we can reasonably expect a young adult to know who they truly are, and why we tend to punish people who prefer to think for themselves, but it has some issues as well, namely an absurd amount of exposition, a rigid story structure, and a lack of emotional impact.

Set in dystopian post-war Chicago at an undetermined time, all residents of the city are divided into five factions. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is a member of the selfless Abnegation faction, but she faces a big decision in the next few days. As a 16-year-old, she, along with her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and all other 16-year-olds, will choose whether to remain in their current faction or join a new one. Both Beatrice and her brother defect to other factions, with Caleb choosing Erudite (smart, fact-driven) and Beatrice choosing Dauntless (brave, fearless). As a “stiff” (A derogatory term for Abnegation), Beatrice has her work cut out for her, but she proves to be more resilient than most had expected, and a lot of that has to do with the results of her pre-ceremony exam, where she was found to be Divergent, meaning that she exhibited the qualities of more than one faction. Her examiner (Maggie Q) warns her against telling anyone that she was Divergent, and Beatrice (who rechristens herself Tris in Dauntless) quickly discovers why: the fluid (read: non-conformist) tendencies of Divergents have branded them as the enemy of Chicago’s faction world, and they are hunted and killed when exposed.

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