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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 16, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 38
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Gordon-Levitt shines but Stone's Snowden still a sluggish disappointment
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SNOWDEN
Now playing


Oliver Stone has never been a filmmaker to shy away from controversy, especially as it concerns the more overtly political films that litter the Academy Award-winner's resume. From Salvador to World Trade Center, from JFK to W., from Platoon to Wall Street to Born on the Fourth of July to Natural Born Killers to Nixon, the filmmaker has spent 30 years pushing the envelope, and succeed or fail his directorial imprint is never in question no matter what the subject of his latest opus turns out to be.

All of which makes Snowden a little odd. Not because Stone decided he felt the need to bring former CIA and NSA contractor Edward Snowden's story to the screen, it's right up his alley, but more because it's difficult to find his imprint on any one second of the finished feature. Oddly by-the-numbers, aggressively documentary-like in its approach, the film feels like a standard, if slightly sensationalistic, newsmagazine reenactment, the whistleblower's explosive tale shockingly devoid of energy for most of its sluggish 134 minutes.

This does not, however, make Stone's latest a total waste. There are some terrific moments, not the least of which is a third act showdown between Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his former professor and boss at the CIA Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans). The two men stare one another down via video link, the latter man projected on a massive conference room screen that takes up the space of an entire wall. It's a chilling sequence, not just because of what is happening or where it takes place inside the narrative, but also just in the breathless, superlatively imaginative way in which it's staged. For Stone, it's arguably the only moment his imprint can be felt, and this is a good thing, the movie coming alive in a way it never does in the same way at any other point.

The other saving grace is Gordon-Levitt, who is superb. His Snowden goes well beyond impersonation of the now well-known whistleblower, isn't just about getting the vocal inflections and physical mannerism right. This is a thoughtful, emotionally complex performance that gets to the heart of what it is Stone is trying to say in ways the script itself is never able to equal. As his eyes open and his disillusionment grows, Gordon-Levitt makes this progression feel genuine, his rising feelings of apprehension and heartache as his feelings towards the U.S. government's surveillance apparatus changes palpable throughout.

What's weird, however, is that with so much rich material to work with, Stone doesn't cover much of anything that many likely do not already know. While he and his fellow writer Kieran Fitzgerald (The Homesman) base their script on Luke Harding's The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man and Anatoly Kucheren's Time of the Octopus, I don't feel like I learned much more than what has been talked about on the nightly news or was found in Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour. It's all surface level analysis of a dynamically complex subject, and no matter how one feels about the man or his actions that doesn't make the debate about personal liberty in the digital age any less important.

Stone begins and ends with the Poitras documentary, using her interviews alongside The Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill in a Hong Kong hotel room as the framing device to bring the nuts and bolts of Snowden's subterfuge to life. Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson portray the trio, but other than a vocal argument with New York editor Janine Gibson (Joely Richardson) they rarely get to do anything notable, each going through the motions of reenacting what we saw their real-life counterparts do in Citizenfour.

Which is better than what happens to poor Shailene Woodley. She plays Snowden's longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills, and to say the character is thinly constructed would be underselling things considerably. While Woodley does her best, it still remains unclear why she sticks with Snowden, the chemistry between the actress and Gordon-Levitt nonexistent. The pair do have one great scene, and that's in the yard of their Hawaiian home right before the cyber analyst decides to abscond with his bevy of confidential and top secret documents. But that's it, and for a relationship that's proven to be so unbreakable (Mills up and moved to Russia to be with her boyfriend in his time of need), that there's no romantic heat between them makes believing this, even though it is true, next to impossible.

I respect that Stone felt the need to constrain himself, that this story was so important it didn't need any extra visual or directorial flamboyance. At the same time, the lack of heat, the absence of energy, it ends up making Snowden come across like much less than it should be. I wanted more, and, to put it frankly, with Stone at the helm it's not too surprising that I was a little disappointed that I didn't get it. There is a conversation that still needs to be had as far as what it is the former analyst did, about the secrets he brought into the light, but this movie is just rehashing the arguments that have already taken place, all of which results in a discussion I just didn't care to engage in.


Suitably scary Blair Witch a surprisingly good sequel
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

BLAIR WITCH
Now playing


Blair Witch was the best-kept secret in Hollywood this side of the script for Star Wars: The Force Awakens or the existence of 10 Cloverfield Land. Heck, it might even be a better one than those two pieces of major studio sleight of hand ended up proving to be, if only because, in the years since its 1999 debut, The Blair Witch Project spawned almost two decade's worth of imitators and gave birth to the found footage subgenre of horror. Its impact on the medium has reverberated to the point that for every The Visit, [REC] or Paranormal Activity, there are so many subpar, close to worthless variations on a similar theme, trying to keep track of them all is pretty much impossible.

So, with that in mind, it's no wonder Lionsgate and The Guest and You're Next impresarios, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, went out of their way to conceal the fact they were secretly making a sequel to one of the more important and influential horror films in recent memory. Not only could they never hope to capture the same sort of mystery that met the original (it was cannily marketed as being 'real' footage, not a fictional story of an investigative journey into the woods gone all sorts of wrong), but the fatigue concerning the genre itself is palpable to the point generating excitement for a new found footage effort is decidedly difficult.

Made under the working title of The Woods, Lionsgate even going so far as to start an entire marketing campaign with theatrical posters and expertly crafted trailers for the faux feature, Wingard and Barrett were able to make their film in something akin to total secrecy and, safe to say, it shows. While no one really needed a direct sequel to that 1999 classic (let's all just pretend 2000's Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 doesn't even exist, shall we?), even if there isn't much in the way of new ground for the innovative filmmakers to tread upon, that doesn't mean they don't give it their best effort all the same. The end result? Even if its feet are planted in overly familiar territory, Blair Witch is spectacularly unsettling, its final 30 minutes a crackerjack roller coaster ride of suspenseful thrills and chills that are well worth the price of admission all on their own.

After a video is released online showcasing the same house glimpsed in the recovered footage of his sister Heather and her two fellow film student friends in Maryland's supposedly haunted Black Hills Forest 20 years prior, college student James (James Allen McCune) begins to believe she might still be alive. His good friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), currently finishing up film school herself, signs up to join him as he journeys to this forest searching for this mysterious house, wanting to record his actions as a documentary thesis project. They are joined by James' best bud since childhood Peter (Brandon Scott) and his outgoing girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), all of them heading to the Black Hills for what they believe will be a quick, utterly harmless weekend camping trip.

Two more end up coming along on their trek, locals Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry). They're the ones who discovered the strange video that James found on the Internet, and as part of the price of showing him where they found the tape they want to tag along for the weekend. Both are keen to learn more about the legend of the Blair Witch who supposedly haunts the Black Woods Forest, certain there will be safety in numbers and aren't worrying anything strange will happen what with six of them going on this particular adventure.

They're mistaken, of course, but I can't help but think just about everyone who buys a ticket to see Blair Witch is likely going to know that going in. As such, the mystery is lessened a considerable amount, as anyone who has ever heard of the original The Blair Witch Project, let alone seen it, knows pretty much from the get-go what is going to happen. Additionally, unlike either of their past two successes, The Guest or You're Next, Wingard and Barrett don't make that giant attempt to flip things on their head in any sort of discernable way, aren't nearly as interested in using the audience's knowledge of the prior film, or the genre as a whole, against them.

All of which would lead one to think this new sojourn into the Black Hills Forest would be nothing short of a yawn-inducing waste of a time, an assumption that would be absolutely, unequivocally erroneous. Wingard and Barrett might not go in a direction that differs much from the 1999 film, but that doesn't mean they haven't thrown every ounce of their considerable talents behind the production. The pair know how to craft tension, and even in their early efforts, A Horrible Way to Die and the anthology favorite 'V/H/S' (they were the primary driving force that got the ball rolling for that series), it was apparent they knew how to make an audience squirm.

Which is exactly what they do here. They deliver up a cast of characters who are easy to identify with and relate to, so even when they start making some suspect, borderline stupid decisions, caring about what is going to happen to them, even when the outcome is not exactly in doubt, is far easier than it has any right to be. More, they utilize their collection of first-person cameras, including an aerial drone, rather brilliantly, all of it culminating in an escalating series of events that brings things hauntingly full circle. It's a kinetic nightmare of carnage and misdirection, things building to a time-bending reveal that would likely have had Rod Serling himself let loose an approving chuckle.

This isn't an actors' movie, and while all involved put forth solid efforts, especially a suitably terrified Curry, her reaction to what appears to be the title character's midnight handmade handiwork unnerving, I can't say any of them are so memorable I'm eager to see where they go from here. Still, they fill their parts with admirable fortitude, Hernandez, in particular, throwing herself into the film's signature climactic set piece with vigorous élan. She provoked feelings of paralyzing claustrophobia in me that were entirely unexpected, and considering I've not had all that much of a problem dealing with confined underground spaces this was somewhat surprising indeed.

I'm glad Wingard and Barrett made Blair Witch. Even if the movie doesn't do anything new, it shows that when talented filmmakers pool their talents and give a project their all even the most tired of subjects and stylistic choices can suddenly feel fresh, electric and alive once again. As out of the blue sequels are concerned, this is a pretty darn good one, and while the original will always be regarded as the terrifying belle of the found footage horror ball, this little party crasher is a suspense-filled darling well worth dancing until morning with.








SGN EXCLUSIVE:
Dolly Parton talks love, Pure and Simple, and her Gay fans!

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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW:
John Waters discusses his life in film and the re-release of Multiple Maniacs

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Emmys 2016: Primetime Awards telecast this weekend, RuPaul wins first Emmy at Creative Arts ceremony
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Whim W'Him' s 'Choreographic Shindig' a delightful evening of intriguing, innovative, and challenging works
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Oldie but goodie: Red Rocks Amphitheatre celebrates its 75th anniversary this year
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Victor Janusz and K.C. Compton present 'Bravo for Belonging'

- a benefit concert for Lambert House to be held Monday, Sept. 26

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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW:
Peaches Christ is back with Jinkx Monsoon in 'Return to Grey Gardens'; Mink Stole to join them for ONE NIGHT ONLY at the Egyptian!

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Bad Apples doesn't quite come together as it should
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Bad Apples needs to go back to the drawing board
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Strawberry Theatre Workshop presents Ionesco's Rhinoceros
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CONTAGIOUS EXCHANGES: Queer Writers in Conversation

New Hugo House Series - 'Claiming a Space to Discuss Queer Issues in Literature'

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Bette Midler releasing deluxe edition of The Divine Miss M
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Gordon-Levitt shines but Stone's Snowden still a sluggish disappointment
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Suitably scary Blair Witch a surprisingly good sequel
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