Movie Review, “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb”

tomb1There’s a mildly amusing Pompeii gag midway through “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.” It involves a scale model toy Roman soldier (Steve Coogan) and his Old West cowboy pal (Owen Wilson) and a monkey in need of extinguishing a model volcano’s fire.
Later, there’s a funny bit of business with Ben Kingsley, playing a pharaoh brought back to life, riffing with Ben Stiller as security guard Larry Daley, about “Exodus” — the Old Testament event, not the new movie co-starring Ben Kingsley but not Ben Stiller.
And then there’s a gag that tops both those rare highlights, one which involves a famous song and dance man, a London theater and a wax figure of Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey) who is dashing and yet awfully confused upon coming to life in The British Museum.
Otherwise, “Secret of the Tomb” is a tedious, sentimental affair, a kid-friendly comedy with delusions of “Toy Story 3″ when “Ace Ventura 3″ — if Hollywood had made one — was all that was within reach.
Stiller plays two roles in this third “Museum” piece — Larry, the night watchman who knows the museum’s exhibits come to life after hours thanks to some ancient Egyptian magic, and a Neanderthal exhibit made in Larry’s image.
Larry has been promoted and looks bored and perhaps annoyed with the makeup that casts dark stripes on the splash of orange that they put on his face. Or maybe that’s Stiller.
But La grunts and gestures and mugs for the camera, John Belushi style, as Stiller’s hairy/monobrowed doppelganger. “La” finds a laugh while Larry is basically reduced to high-priced straight man.
Not that the anybody has a lot of comic wriggle room here. The Museum of Natural History’s exhibits are in danger of losing their after-dark/after-lives because of the failing powers of an Egyptian tablet. Larry and his friends slip off to London, where the parents (Kingsley included) of young Pharaoh Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek) may know how to save the day. Larry drags his aspiring DJ son (Skylar Gisondo) along, to no purpose.
The British Museum is guarded by Rebel “Pitch Perfect” Wilson, a funny lady who manages a couple of modest zingers in her few scenes.
tomb2But Stevens is the real find here, cut loose from his pale, lovesick turn on “Abbey” to wear long hair, armor and a dashing swagger as Lancelot, a knight in need of a quest. Even he never rises to hilarious.
Robin Williams, in his last film role, returns as Teddy Roosevelt, whose symptoms as the tablet’s magic wanes have him impersonating everyone from FDR and JFK to Reagan and W. — weakly.
It was Mickey Rooney’s final film, too, and he has but a single scene. At least Dick Van Dyke gets to show off his dancing moves, one more time. He, Rooney and Bill Cobb return as the original night watchmen, the ones who tried to rob the Museum of Natural History in “Night at the Museum.”
The Brits show the Americans up as only Stevens, Wilson and Ricky Gervais seem inclined to throw themselves into this paycheck picture.
There’s a cleverly conceived fight inside a Maurice Escher pen and ink drawing, stairways folding in on themselves, dimensions bending. Minor moments of slapstick may tickle the kids, but anybody older, especially those who remember what Williams was like in his prime and how funny Stiller was just two “Museum” movies ago, will wish this tomb had stayed sealed.
1half-star
MPAA Rating: PG for mild action, some rude humor and brief language
Cast: Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Rebel Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Owen Wilson, Ben Kingsley, Dan Stevens, Skylar Gisondo
Credits: Directed by Shawn Levy, screenplay by David Guion and Michael Handelman. A 20th Century Fox release.
Running time: 1:37

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Movie Review: “Goodbye to All That”

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Character actor Paul Schneider earns a great showcase for his quirky brand of befuddled reserve in “Goodbye to All That,” an offbeat romance about sudden divorce, hiding in the past and “getting back out there” in a dating scene twisted by social media into a Golden Age of the Hook Up.
It’s the directing debut of Angus MacLachlan, who wrote “Junebug” and thus gave Amy Adams the perfect introduction to the world. “Goodbye” displays the same canny ear for human interactions, both comical and confessional.
Otto Wall is a happy-go-lucky soul, but a clumsy one, too. We meet Otto (Paul Schneider) as he takes a tumble at the end of his latest 10K race.
No worries. He has a nice house, a pretty wife (Melanie Lynskey of TV’s “Two and a Half Men”) and a precocious nine year-old daughter (Audrey P. Scott). He kisses the kid good night, and he stubs his toe. He limps to his bedroom and stubs it again. They go offroading in the woods of Pilot Mountain, N.C., and their four-wheeler flips. Hospital time.
“Why do these things happen to Daddy?” the kid wants to know.
“He doesn’t pay attention.”
So even as Otto is ignoring dire warnings about letting his injured foot recover before running again, the marriage that he hasn’t paid attention to unravels.
“Meet me at my therapist’s.”
“You have a therapist?”
The shrink (Celia Weston) doesn’t even pretend to be impartial — “Your marriage is over.” No discussion, no debate, no counseling. Boom. Take it up with her lawyer.
“You have a LAWYER?”
What follows is Otto’s serio-comic spiral into this new reality — moving out, having visitation arrangements imposed on him rather than negotiated. Schneider brilliantly acts out that magical moment anyone who has broken up in the Facebook Era has experienced — a chilling relationship status change (and discovering what the wife was up to, and who she was up to). Otto leaps up, knocking over his chair, his eyes still locked on that blue and white screen of betrayal.
MacLachlan serves up some seriously funny twists on the digital dating scene — the old flame (Heather Graham) into post-divorce casual sex, the OKCupid hook-up that leads to strange, naked sexting-aloud sex (with a hilariously sexy Ashley Hinshaw), and meeting the kinkier-than-you’d-think churchgoer. Anna Camp’s Biblical bi-polar case, Debbie Spangler, plays like a riotously ribald variation on Adams’ adorable “Junebug” character.
Amy Sedaris (an overly friendly boss) and Heather Lawless (a camp crush) flesh out other potential romances that might too easily have turned into caricatures.
“Goodbye to All That” is a slight story covering overly-familiar ground. But Schneider (“Elizabethtown,” “Lars and the Real Girl”) is terrific as a man perpetually on his heels, and tripping over them, lonely even if Social Media means he is never truly alone or long between hook-ups. In his hands, Otto becomes EveryDivorcedMan — lost, overmatched, bullied and yet suspecting, deep-down, that something he did or did not pay attention to was his real undoing.
3stars2
MPAA Rating: unrated, with nudity, explicit sex, profanity
Cast: Paul Schneider, Melanie Lynskey, Heather Graham, Audrey P. Scott, Celia Weston
Credits: Written and directed by Angus MacLachlan. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:23

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Movie Review, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

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Peter Jackson’s “Just Give the People What They Want,” aka “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” sends this not-really-a-trilogy off in style. That means stuffing in everything the fans want, or that Jackson thinks the fans want out of these films made from the novel that came before “The Lord of the Rings.”
So “Battle” is bookended by two epic fights — the duel to the death with the dragon Smaug, and the “Five Armies” finale, with its pikes and pickaxes, fluttering flags and phalanxes.
There is death and destruction, forbidden love and treasure, honor and slaughter.
And Jackson, who has messed with this adaptation even more than he did “Lord of the Rings,” hedges his bets. His invented love story between the elvish Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) still doesn’t work. So he brings in Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom and Christopher Lee, reprising their characters from “Rings” as a way to anticipating — in the most heavy-handed way — the Middle Earth epic that followed this one.
We get sentimental moments with most characters, often in the middle of the pitched battle that is the climax of this film, curtain calls to engender warm memories from the faithful.
And we’re treated to a trio of stunning special effects set pieces. The first is Smaug’s fire-breathing assault on Lake-town, torched to the water-line before the hero Bard (Luke Evans) can fell the beast. Then, there’s a struggle to save the ever-imprisoned Gandalf (Ian McKellen), one that involves a battle with the ghosts of warriors past. Blanchett, as the Elf Queen Galadriel, has an eye-popping moment there.
And finally there’s a sword fight on the ice, a grim and drawn-out clash between monstrous orc and the Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the greedy and increasingly paranoid King under the Lonely Mountain. For Thorin, it isn’t enough that his rule is ensured when the humans slay the dragon who stood between Thorin and his band of dwarfs and their burglar, the hobbit Bilbo Baggin (Martin Freeman), and the dwarves’ treasure-stuffed ancestral home.
The “Battle” of the story’s title is joined when Thorin proves too small to keep his bargain with the full-sized men of Lake-town, when the elves led by Thranduil (Lee Pace) come to collect another debt and the grotesque orcs converge on the ruins of the former stronghold to catch all their enemies in one place and wipe them out.
Gandalf is full of warnings about “If that fell kingdom should rise again,” and builds an impromptu alliance.
“Summon our friends, bird and beast!”
And Bilbo, the little furry-footed man with the secret magic ring, tries to make peace and save the day with a little hobbit ingenuity and negotiating.
“Five Armies” is funnier than the other Hobbit movies, zingers from the cowardly ruler of Lake-town (Stephen Fry) and his more-cowardly aide (Ryan Gage), sight gags that often involve some hapless orc being killed in a creative way.
Jackson’s camera, which is all digital crane shots covering a sea of digital soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, moves in for close-ups for the deaths here. Not that this adds impact. A lot of the digital riding stock — rams, an elk, trolls — have the jerky movement of critters from the stop-motion animated “Jason and the Argonauts” fifty years ago.
“The Hobbit” has never overcome the handicaps of its plot and casting. Jackson made some of the dwarfs characters Snow White would adore, and others look like hunky, hirsute alumni of heavy metal bands, and none of them popped off the screen the way the players did in “Lord of the Rings.” The one classic hero here is Bard, the dragon slayer, and he has too little to do.
Freeman, a marvelous Dr. Watson on TV’s “Sherlock,” never seems proportionally right as a “halfling,” not the way Elijah Wood and Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan did in the “Rings” cycle. He’s also got that TV actor’s disease — doing all his acting with his head, bobbing it about, animating everything but the rest of his body.
It’s the best film of this trilogy, but truthfully, none of the “Hobbit” thirds have been any better than middling “Hunger Games” or “Harry Potter” installments. Considering the vaunted reputation J.R.R.Tolkien enjoys, this overdone “There and Back Again” never quite got us there.
2half-star6
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee
Credits: Directed by Peter Jackson, written by Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, based on the J.R.R. Tolkien novel. A Warner Brothers/MGM release.
Running time: 2:20

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Movie Review: “Annie” reborn?

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“Annie,” a musical that the decades have rendered into a punchline, is modernized, made more streetwise and brought back to life in a production backed by Jay Z and various members of the Will and Jada Pinkett Smith empire.

The new “Annie” is intimate and hip, sarcastic and flip. It opens by mocking the cliched redheaded cheerfulness of the Depression Era comic strip, and proceeds to give the little orphan — “Not an orphan. I’m a foster kid!” — sass to go along with a heart so big it melts all of New York.

Quvenzhane Wallis, that wonder of a child actress from “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” is no tap dancing Broadway baby with a voice built to reach the balcony. But director Will Gluck and the producers tailor this production to her talents, and it pays dividends.

Annie has charisma enough to turn a school report on Franklin Roosevelt into a performance piece, with her classmates keeping the beat. She charms her “Hard Knock Life” roommates at the foster home, but not the wannabe who collects checks from the state to take care of them all. Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz, vamping it up) has never gotten over being kicked out of C & C Music Factory in the ’90s. She’s a bitter drunk who shrieks at the five kids she cares for entertainment.

Meanwhile, Daddy Warbucks has been transformed into Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a cell phone magnate who sees his run for mayor as a chance to grow his business. He’s a Purell addict, fretting about having to meet people and, you know, get germs.

“Whoa whoa,” he gripes to his campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale) and his assistant Grace (Rose Byrne). “I gotta feed hobos?”

Stacks is a victim of his own spit-takes at every event where he has to eat soup kitchen food. But if viral videos can drag him down in the polls, video of him scooping Annie out of danger in traffic brings him up. Guy convinces Stacks to take in the kid and get as many photos of “Little Orphan Annie” as he can.

All Annie wants to do is find her real parents, visiting the restaurant where she was abandoned years before, waiting and hoping.

Gluck (“Easy A”) keeps the pace brisk through the early acts. Some songs from the stage musical are moved offstage but kept as part of the texture, sung by pop singers such as Sia (who also composed new tunes for the film) and Halli Cauthery. Others are transformed into marvels of kid-friendly choreography. Byrne and Wallis surprise in the giddy duet “I Think I’m Gonna to Like It Here,” shot on the roof of Stacks’ automated penthouse. Diaz is fearlessly mean in “Little Girls” and she and Cannavale kill “Easy Street.” Foxx is a proven crooner who shows a kid-friendly side in his duets with Wallis, who is blessed with a pleasant natural voice, if not one that’s ready for her own record contract — yet.

The banter is clever. We’re reminded that Sandy, the dog, shares the name with a certain storm. And the picture is peppered with cameos — Patricia Clarkson as a customer burned by Stacks’ cellphones, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis star in a movie whose premiere the rich guy and the orphan attend, and Michael J. Fox endorses Stacks’ mayoral race opponent.

Even with all this sparkle, the film staggers through its third act. By then, the script has rubbed the rough edges off the villains and made whatever point it was going to make several times over.

But it’s nice to see “Annie” find life beyond the bright red dress, the curly red wigs and generations of stage moms shoving their little darlings into the spotlight to belt out that something — I forget exactly what — “is only a day away.”

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: PG for some mild language and rude humor

Cast: Quvenzhane Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale

Credits: Directed by Will Gluck, , screenplay by Will Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna, based on the stage musical (book by Thomas Meehan) and the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” by Harold Gray. A Sony release.

Running time: 1:58

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The Best Movies of 2014

So, 2014 in film — a good year for movies, or a weak one?

Well, any calendar year that packs two must-see genre-benders starring Scarlett Johansson — you read that right — can’t be all bad. “Under the Skin” and “Lucy” were all that.

dropAny year that produces two stunning turns as different as “Locke” and “The Drop” by Tom Hardy demands recognition.

Any year that brings back Michael Keaton (“Birdman”) and Jon Favreau (“Chef”), makes Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pratt movie stars and tosses dirt on the coffins on Adam Sandler and Tyler Perry must be remembered. Any year in which Vin Diesel (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) gives his best performance in animated form, with just three (OK, FOUR) words of dialogue, has to be savored.

The best work by an actress was Julianne Moore’s subtle, human and affecting turn in — yes, an affliction picture” — “Still Alice.” Patricia Arquette makes a grand journey through single motherhood in “Boyhood.” But Meryl Streep is in amazing voice and playful demeanor in “Into the Woods.” Hilary Swank was period perfect in “The Homesman.” And Reese Witherspoon’s unadorned performance in “Wild” is worthy of its “Oscar bait” label.

And Gugu Mbatha-Raw? As Kenneth Tynan famously put it about a star of an earlier era, “What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober.” That goes for Gugu.

Hardy had the best year among actors, though Eddie Redmayne’s transformation into Stephen Hawking (“The Theory of Everything”) was stunning, Keaton and Edward Norton dazzled as nasty versions of the worst rumors we’ve heard about their “real” personalities in “Birdman” and J.K. Simmons was in a (probably supporting) actor class by himself in “Whiplash.”

And if you missed “Get on Up,” you missed Chadwick Boseman’s playful megalomaniac take on James Brown. Netflix it.

glenBest documentary? Critics and Hollywood may have already given this to one of their own — the Roger Ebert biography “Life Itself.” Lovely, long and thorough film. And there’s buzz for “Citizenfour,” an “important” but dull behind-the-scenes look at Edward Snowden as NSA-gate broke. But I was more taken with James Keach’s film of singer Glen Campbell’s battle with Alzheimer’s and his last hurrah tour, “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.” Moving, funny and very touching.

Best horror film? “The Babadook,” a demonic assault on a small “knowing” child and his widowed mother, or mom’s mania at the child whose birth caused the death of her husband?

We’ll let the Academy pick a best foreign language film between the darkly funny Swedish dissection of marriage “Force Majeure,” and the austere Polish Holocaust mystery “Ida.” It’ll be close.

Not the greatest year for animation, but “The Lego Movie,” “Boxtrolls,” “The Book of Life” and “Big Hero 6″ should fill out the three picture Best Animated Film Oscar field, with one decent film left out.

The best Hollywood features? You could make a good claim to how great this year was just using titles that begin with the letter “B” — “Belle,” “Boyhood,” “Birdman,” “Big Eyes.” Or build a list out of excellent film biographies. The year was packed with them. But I think these ten will do, for starters.

“Boyhood” – Richard Linklater’s decade-in-the-making survey of American childhood is the last coming-of-age picture we need ever see. Linklater’s unfussy style perfectly married to this subject, his eye for new talent (Ellar Coltrane) is as sharp as anyone’s as his spot-on casting of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who wear their years and miles with pride as the decade progresses, seems like the work of not just an indie pioneer, but of a national treasure.

“Whiplash” – Miles Teller beat the drums until his palms bled, but only J.K. Simmons, as the sadistic, abusive jazz purist band teacher, could convince him and us that’s a righteous pursuit.

keaton1“Birdman” – A comical indictment of celebrity, comic book movie stardom and the bad reputations Michael Keaton and Edward Norton have earned are spun into Alejandro González Iñárritu’s giddy classic.

“The Theory of Everything” – Watch this and “Interstellar” the same weekend, and you’ll have a pretty good layman’s understanding of space-time. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones recreate a very complicated, supportive and curious marriage, giving this Stephen Hawking bio-pic an air of mystery that adds to is appeal.

“Belle” – Gugu Mbatha-Raw is both the naive young black woman, raised among the British gentry, whose eyes are opened — with ours — to the demoralizing horrors of the slave trade. There’s a nobility to her performance that matches the curious, questioning character’s upbringing. Being raised by the great Tom Wilkinson, as 18th century England’s greatest jurist, rubs off.

reese1“Wild” – Maybe it’s the ex-backpacker in me, appreciating every mistake Reese Witherspoon makes as Cheryl Strayed, a lost-soul-hiking-her-way-to-sanity. Maybe it’s Laura Dern’s wounded but always hopeful supporting turn as the junky Cheryl’s mom, and the message — “Be the person your mother hoped you would be.” Whatever it was, it works, first frame to last.

“Big Eyes” – If you’re going to make a bio-pic of Margaret Keane, who secretly painted all those pie-eyed pop art waifs in the ’60s, you could do worse than casting Amy Adams. If you’re going to title it “Big Eyes,” you cannot make it without her. A surprise and a feel-good delight from Tim Burton, of all people.

bg“Calvary” – Brendan Gleeson was born to play an Irish priest, comically disrespected by one and all in his tiny parrish, and then threatened with death by someone the Church has wronged. Writer-director John Michael McDonagh is closing the gap with his more famous brother Martin McDonagh. And they both have the good sense to have the Great Gleeson as their muse.

“The Drop” – My favorite Tom Hardy picture of 2014 had him as a dull Brooklyn bartender whose life is upended when his crooked boss (James Gandolfini, in a final performance of cruel vulnerability) crosses the wrong bad guys. Another great adaptation based on a Denis Lehane “Gone Baby Gone” crime novel. Go figure.

“Interstellar” – People are still arguing about this delirious mashup of conventional sci-fi thriller and relativity Power Point presentation. Even astronomer Neil deGrasse-Tyson ws moved to tweet and tweet again on the solid science of Christopher Nolan’s trippy riff on “2001.” And even Tyson must have been moved by Matthew McConaghey’s soulful performance as an astronaut with the fate of human survival on his shoulders, and the “think long term” message of this cautionary thriller.

And shoot, that’s ten, meaning I can’t get into “The Homesman, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Locke,” or the fine bio-pics “The Imitation Game” or “Mr. Turner.” But maybe they’re on your list.

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Today’s Screening: “Annie”

No matter what the beer distributors and limo drivers of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association say, honoring the young star with the title role with a nomination, I don’t have high hopes for this “Annie” updating. The original was creaky and hopelessly dated, but had a couple of good tunes and worked in its time.

How hip can you make Little Orphan Annie?

But we’ll see. Jamie Foxx et. al will do their best to bring it, and Ms. Wallis is a charmer.

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Box Office: “Exodus” underwhelms, “Top Five” is more like top ten

box“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” the entertaining, action-packed Ridley Scott epic about the (mythic) Jewish escape from slavery in Egypt, was always going to have a hard time reaching the faithful.

It’s not airy-fairy mystical like “Noah,” but its Biblical literalness isn’t on a par with the Old Testament/King James version of the story, “The Ten Commandments.” And some preachers are going to be railing about the idea that Moses sees and hears the voice of God as a testy, vengeful child — with a British accent.

Others complained about the “all white cast.” Especially amongst the Egyptians. I’m not sure how you avoid that minefield in this day and age. A movie in which a white prophet’s white God drowns tens of thousands of black people in the Red Sea won’t go over, either.

In any event, the effects and all-star cast drew more than the curious as it earned close to $9 million on Friday. Deadline.com projects it to hit $24-25 million by midnight Sunday.  Reviews won’t help it, though I took it at face value and found the God Child thing ingenious.

Overwhelmingly positive reviews didn’t convince Paramount that Chris Rock is box office, so they opened “Top Five,” his best film ever, on under 1,000 screens. It is headed towards a modest $6-7 million at the box office this weekend. Decent for the number of screens, but that won’t cover cameo star Adam Sandler’s green fees or Jerry Seinfeld’s car collection’s oil changes.

“Hunger Games: Mockingjay” is falling off steeply after making a boatload of cash.

“Wild,” the Reese Witherspoon “Eat, Hike, Love” drama about a promiscuous junkie’s long hike to straighten out her life, added screens and cracked the top ten. It’s tied with “Birdman.” “The Imitation Game” and “Foxcatcher” still haven’t rolled out wider after their SAG and Golden Globe nominations. They’re missing the bounce. Maybe next week.

Reopening “”Nightcrawler” last weekend hasn’t paid great dividends, but perhaps audience will build Sat. and Sunday post-Globes/SAG nominations.

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Movie Review: “Citizenfour”

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It’s not unusual for a documentary filmmaker to keep herself out of the story he or she is telling, even if the filmmaker is asking questions of the subject of the movie.
But there’s something special about Laura Poitras’s self-omission from “Citizenfour.” Her documentary is about Edward Snowden, the man who revealed the extent the National Security Agency (NSA) was electronically spying on Americans and the world after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Poitras was a key figure in getting Snowden’s story out, and her film is an “as it happens” account of Snowden’s bombshell. She was in his Hong Kong hotel room with him, helping tell his story on video, capturing Snowden as he was questioned by journalist Glenn Greenwald and others for the stories that would rattle the U.S. security establishment and startle those Americans concerned with issues of Internet and cell-phone privacy.
Everybody else is on camera here, but no glimpse of Poitras. Snowden tells her and Greenwald that the moment the first words of his tale are published, he and they will be found. The paranoia is palpable throughout “Citizenfour,” in every encrypted email exchange between Snowden and Poitras, in every meeting with the lawyers who rushed to Snowden’s aide, in every Snowden warning about “the greatest weapon for oppression in the history of the world” and the ways this data gathering is “the wronging of the American people.”
Snowden, sitting down here for the longest series of video interviews he’s given, comes off as less the reckless crackpot that he was painted as being by the mainstream media. He’s calm, resigned he says, again and again, to his fate. He expects to go to prison, he claims, again and again. He has the peaceful countenance of a martyr.’
Of course, he didn’t go to prison, he fled to Russia, which has been working to revive the Cold War that drove U.S. intelligence gathering for over 30 years. And for all the impact Greenwald and others unleashing Snowden’s revelations on the world has had, it’s hard to say much has changed. But that’s a discussion better left to experts on security, terrorism and Constitutional matters.
Poitras has delivered an important filmed argument, made by Snowden and Greenwald, that what we used to call “freedom” is now more narrowly defined as “privacy.” And it’s gone as the Intelligence State has evolved into a Kafka-esque nightmare of surveillance, bulk data collection and spying, much of it aided by phone companies and web operations.
But important as “Citizenfour” is, as sane as Snowden comes off and as sober-minded as the sometimes shrill Greenwald is presented here, the movie is never more than quietly chilling background noise. The soft-spoken Snowden drones on and one to Greenwald and Poitras, and the filmmaker does little to illustrate, underline or breathe life into the charges Snowden is making and their real-life consequences. Other experts pop up, mostly on panel discussions, as if Poitras was afraid to ID herself to everyone and anyone connected to this subject.
She fled to Berlin during the filmmaking — so concerned was she that her footage would be seized. If nothing else, we get a taste for how paranoid — perhaps justifiably — people covering the NSA and its misdeeds can get.
The precautions ensured that Snowden’s story got out, and that he slipped from the reach of American justice, which had notions of trying him through dated sedition and state secrets theft statutes. But the idea that these people feared for their lives seems melodramatic.
Greenwald, living on the edge of the Brazilian jungle, Snowden hiding out in Moscow and Poitras, wherever she is now that her movie is done, may be right to worry about how our electronic trails can be used against us by people paying more attention to that than we’d realized. They never come off as naive for fearing the consequences of their actions.
But this somewhat dull and seriously context-free film (this practice began as an effort to thwart the next 9/11) isn’t much more interesting than the original data dump itself. It needs less wonky analysis and more dramatic representations of what this wide surveillance net means and what it could mean if used by a government with a more zealous interest in suppressing dissent.

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MPAA Rating: R for language

Cast: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Jacob Appelbaum, Julian Assange, William Binney

Credits: Written and directed by Laura Poitras. A Radius/TWC release.

Running time: 2:04

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Movie Nation Interview: Questions for Christoph Waltz?

waltzHe’s got two Oscars and is Tarantino’s go to villain or anti hero. He’s the new Bond villain. He’s the grinning Teutonic beast we all love to hate.

But Christoph Waltz’s best work might be charming sweet little Amy Adams into marrying him and painting works that he markets and then takes credit for in Tim Burton’s entertaining “Big Eyes.”

Walter Keane taught Andy Warhol it’s about the pose, the backstory, the hype, “the new” and the commodity that art is. He turned wife Margaret’s “Big Eyed Waif” paintings — they look like Spielbergian aliens to me — into a hip thing, then a popular thing and then a fortune generator. And took credit for painting the works, too.

I’ve never talked to Waltz before, so this should be interesting.

Questions for Christoph Waltz? Comment below, and thanks for the suggestions.

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Weekend Movies: “Exodus” panned, “Inherent Vice” endorsed, “Top Five” embraced

Ridley Scott’s Biblical epic had critics — what, exactly? Missing “The Ten Commandments” (I could see that), mocking the idea that the voice Moses hears at the Burning Bush is actually a testy little British boy, disliking being reminding of Moses’ martial bent?

Reviews are weak for “Exodus: Gods and Kings” — across the board. I liked it more than most.  It’s entertaining, action packed and just secular enough to play to guys like me. God having a temper? Very Old Testament. God as vengeful tween? Cool.

I think you can make cases for and against this special effects extravaganza.

“Inherent Vice” is earning some of the weakest reviews of Paul Thomas Anderson’s career. Dopey, WAY too long (“Exodus” long), drifting on past its climax, it’s still fun to see Joaquin Phoenix playing Thomas Pynchon’s pothead private eye Doc Sportello, and Josh Brolin as the brutish, delusional Bigfoot, a cop who considers himself a “Renaissance Detective.” Sure. I liked it no more or less than anybody else.

I wasn’t a HUGE fan of Chris Rock’s amusing “Top Five.” Others seem impressed or dazzled by recycled riffs about “Planet of the Apes,” but the banter with Rosario Dawson, a deeply flawed but pretty and flirty reporter following the comic Rock plays around for the day, is sharp. The cameos, from Kevin Hart to Cedric Entertaining for Once to Jerry Seinfeld and even Adam Sandler, are a hoot.

It’s Rock’s best film, by far, which isn’t saying a lot. Very “Annie Hall” meets Jerry Seinfeld by way of Kevin Hart — raw, raunchy, rude and fun.

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