Film Review: Snowden

Snowden

Oliver Stone’s Snowden mixes biopic with political thriller. It is an enjoyable enough watch.

In June 2013, Edward Snowden meets with filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in a hotel room in Hong Kong. Intelligence contractor Snowden wishes to blow the whistle on mass surveillance techniques by the NSA…

How do you make a recent and very well publicised event an interesting enough subject for a feature film? By making it a personal story. At least, this is what director-writer Oliver Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald have done. Most viewers will be aware of Edward Snowden and his whistle-blowing activities, so Stone needs to offer them a hook. He does this by combining a biopic format with the minutae of the events that occurred in June 2013, when The Guardian first broke the NSA story.

The title character’s story is told in flashbacks marking pivotal eras in his adult life. Those who are unaware of Edward’s background will certainly find this interesting. It charts the journey of a conservative protagonist who wants to serve his country, to a cynical individual who wants to inform the world. In this sense, Gabriel Sol’s nickname for him, Snow White, seems very apt.

Edward encounters several characters that have an impact on him. Significant to the personal story is his relationship with girlfriend Lindsay. However, it terms of personal revelation, his relationships with colleagues and mentors is more pertinent. As the film progresses, the reason he decided to whistle blow becomes abundantly clear.

The present day activity is mildly interesting, but does not hold the same weight as the flashbacks. Whilst it is entertaining to see how Edward got the information through security, the later scenes in Hong Kong are less exciting. Here, Stone aims for tension in exhibiting the meetings between the protagonists and journalists, and his escape from the hotel. However, as most viewers will know about Edward Snowden, it fails to achieve the palpable tension the film is aiming for.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a solid performance as Edward. Shailene Woodley is well cast as Lindsay, as are Scott Eastwood and Ben Schnetzer in minor roles. Nicolas Cage is joyous in his small appearances.  The subject matter is certainly up Oliver Stone’s street. Whilst mildly entertaining, Snowden does not deliver the insight or energy of Stone’s earlier pictures.

Snowden is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2016.

Film Review: Savages

Oliver Stone’s Savages does not feel like an Oliver Stone film. That is not to say that it is a bad film, but merely that it feels like a departure from the director’s best known work.

Best friends Ben and Chon live in Laguna Beach with their girlfriend O, and are known for growing a potent strain of marijuana. When a Mexican cartel wants to move into their territory, the pair are not keen to a make a deal. Ben and Chon are forced into a perilous position when the cartel threatens the thing they both love…

Savages is a crime thriller that remains light for the most part. The film never gives the impression that it is taking itself too seriously. And because of this, it is an enjoyable watch. The pacing of the film accelerates appropriately, although the running time could have been trimmed.

The most striking element of Savages is that it bears little resemblance to earlier Oliver Stone films. Based on Don Winslow’s novel, Stone is also one of the screenplay writers. Yet it feels almost whimsical; a far cry from the weighty drama of JFK or the socio-economic commentary of Wall Street. It is as if Oliver Stone has taken a holiday, brushing aside more serious concerns for a thriller with a tongue-in-cheek attitude.

Much of the lightness is garnered from the dialogue. Savages is narrated by O, whose delivery is inconsequential. Given her age, background and location, this is not surprising. Nevertheless, the dialogue negates any illusions of Savages being a serious crime thriller. At times the film feels more Sweet Valley High than anything else. This is not really a bad thing.

There is some commentary to be found in Savages, regarding the legalisation of marijuana. This takes on an overt appearance, rather than being subtly hinted at. However, this message is delivered concisely, leaving the rest of the film to get on with its purpose of entertaining the viewer.

The villains in Savages are portrayed in a caricature manner, which makes them most enjoyable to watch. Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro appear to revel in their roles, offering amusingly over the top characters. Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch meanwhile are well cast in their straight roles.

Savages may not be to everyone’s taste, but those prepared for the lightness should be entertained. Fans of Stone’s more hard-hitting work may be bemused.

Trailer Round-Up

This week’s pick of trailers include horror movie Silent House, the George Lucas-produced Red Tails and Seth MacFarlane’s Ted.

Savages

Savages combines a number of enticing elements. Directed by Oliver Stone, the film is based on Don Winslow’s best-selling crime novel. Savages boasts a stellar ensemble cast that includes Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Blake Lively and Taylor Kitsch, who has very much been on the radar in 2012. The action thriller is due for release on 28th September 2012, in the UK.

Red Tails

Red Tails is based on the true story of World War II’s first African American fighter squadron. The first thing that struck me about the publicity for the film was the hot 80s-esque type font. Produced by George Lucas, Red Tails is directed by Anthony Hemingway (who has a solid career in television, including The Wire). Red Tails is released on 6th June 2012.

Ted

Just like the trailer suggests, as a child I always wanted my teddies to come alive. Actually, as an adult, I still wish for this. Ted is a new comedy from Family Guy-creator Seth MacFarlane. Written, directed and voiced by MacFarlane, the film is sure to offer the same brand of close-to-the-bone humour. Ted, which stars Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis, is released on 3rd August 2012.

Silent House

Silent House is a horror film that takes place in real time and in one continuous take. I recently watched Rope again, which truly mastered the long take in the late 1940s. It will be interesting to see how Silent House compares. The film is a remake of Uruguayan film La Casa Muda. Silent House, which stars Elizabeth Olsen, opens on 4th May 2012 in the UK.

Film Review: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Admirers of Oliver Stone’s 1987 classic Wall Street were surely intrigued when news of a sequel first broke. Although the film begins well, it loses its way; Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps does not come close to matching the overall quality of its predecessor.

A number of years after he is released from prison, Gordon Gekko is on the book promotion circuit. Jake Moore is going out with Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie, and attends one of Gekko’s lectures to introduce himself. Jake needs help with his career, so Gekko uses this to enlist the young trader’s help in reuniting him with his daughter…

A sequel to Wall Street seems particularly timely given the economic turmoil of recent years. Given that the film is set in 2008, it would appear that writers Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff aimed to capitalise on the distrust felt towards the finance sector. The film is successful in one regard; with a backdrop of the economic crisis with a company modelled on Lehman Brothers, it easy to follow the parallels. Nevertheless, despite the possibilities offered by this setting, the filmmakers chose to refrain from more hard-hitting commentary to focus on the personal story. In another film this may not have been an issue, but it all feels like it has done before in this sequel.

Jake is much like Bud Fox in the original film. A young up-and-comer, just like Bud, Gekko takes Jake under his wing. Again, Jake is warned against this, but decides to trust in Gekko’s wealth of experience instead. Jake is hotheaded and quite an interesting character to watch, but is just too similar to Bud.

Gordon Gekko is one of the most memorable characters in cinema of the last thirty years. In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, however, is character flip-flops so many times it really is a betrayal of the persona built by the first film. At certain times his actions become predictable, while at other times they appear irrational in the context.

Michael Douglas is on good form as Gekko; it is just a pity the script does not live up to expectation. Shia LaBeouf gives a decent performance in a role that doesn’t really stretch his capabilities. Carey Mulligan doesn’t shine as Winnie, but in her defense the character is pretty doltish. Josh Brolin meanwhile brings some much needed gravitas as Bretton James.

The visual aesthetic is almost faultless, with some really intriguing cinematography. Likewise, the sound is great, combining the score with a splendid use of well-known tunes. The product placement is a sticking point, however, as the presumably intentional concentration on certain brands is distracting. Stone seemingly wished to make a comment about capitalism, but in this big-budget production there is an air of hypocrisy about it.

An opportunity to bring back a memorable character with hardly a more appropriate backdrop, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps fails to live up to its initial promise. With a better script and a more coherent narrative, the film could have struck gold.