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Snowden (2016)

snowdenDIRECTOR: Oliver Stone

CAST: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Melissa Leo, Nicolas Cage

REVIEW:

Given his attraction to controversial, politically-charged fare, it’s no surprise that Oliver Stone would end up being the one to make a film about Edward Snowden, the NSA/CIA analyst-turned-whistleblower who became an internationally wanted fugitive (currently living under temporary residence in Moscow) after leaking thousands of classified files exposing unconstitutional government wiretapping and mass surveillance programs.  Whether Snowden deserves the label “hero” or “traitor” (or to some extent maybe even both) varies widely depending on who you ask, but the content of his leaks, whatever one may feel about his methods or the man himself, should give anyone a moment’s pause.  Perhaps Snowden‘s biggest drawback as a film is that it doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table that can’t already be gleaned from a documentary on the same subject, Citizenfour (ironically the same complaint that can be made of another Joseph Gordon-Levitt vehicle, last year’s The Walk), but it’s still a compelling biopic/docudrama that doesn’t require one to be particularly familiar with the real Edward Snowden to understand and enjoy the film. Continue reading

The Help (2011)

helpDIRECTOR: Tate Taylor

CAST: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek

REVIEW:

Perhaps the greatest value of The Help, like other films such as 12 Years a Slave or Selmais in reminding those too young to have first-hand experience of just how oppressive large sections of the United States were to their African-American inhabitants only a few short decades ago.  This is not some vague ancient history; people who grew up in the environment depicted onscreen are still alive today.  While The Help is not as hard-hitting as the films mentioned above—nor, to be fair, is that really its intention, and at times it outright aims for “feel good”—and is somewhat weakened by a tendency to paint with broad strokes and deal in black-and-white (no pun intended), it’s still a worthy time capsule that is sometimes inspiring, sometimes moving, and sometimes illuminating.   Continue reading

Doubt (2008)

doubtDIRECTOR: John Patrick Shanley

CAST: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

REVIEW:

Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s film adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, deals with various issues—the debate over whether the Catholic Church should stand firm to old-school doctrine or evolve with the times, the ways in which those too wrapped up in their own righteousness lose sight of compassion, more tangential questions of crisis of faith and (perhaps) sexuality—-but primarily it’s a battle between doubt and certainty, both as an external conflict between characters and within individual characters’ hearts.  Its outwardly simple, straightforward premise steeps itself in ambiguity and leads us into a moral quagmire from which it never lets us emerge.  Those who dislike ambiguity and expect a film to offer a clear-cut resolution with clear answers will not be satisfied.  Different viewers will come to different interpretations, and Doubt is the kind of film (or play) that can inspire heated debates after the end credits have rolled or the curtain has fallen. Continue reading

Suicide Squad (2016)

squadDIRECTOR: David Ayer

CAST: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Cara Delevingne, Karen Fukuhara, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Adam Beach, Scott Eastwood, Common

REVIEW:

Suicide Squad promoted itself as a kind of darker, grittier, DC equivalent of Marvel’s offbeat Guardians of the Galaxy—complete with a ragtag band of lower-tier comic book characters and a busy soundtrack of pop hits—and while I’m not prepared to place it on equal footing, it’s at least more enjoyable than DC’s previous offering this year, the dreary, borderline incoherent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (though that might sound like damning with faint praise).  The film has its own issues, but overall, despite being critically savaged, it’s a fairly enjoyable romp with enough cheeky humor and kinetic action to please many fans of the comic series. Continue reading

Jason Bourne (2016)

jasonDIRECTOR: Paul Greengrass

CAST: Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL REVEAL “SPOILERS”

With the total box office gross for Universal’s Bourne trilogy reaching nearly $1 billion, it was inevitable that the studio would want more, even when director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon were uninterested in returning, but their misfired attempt at expanding the Bourne “universe”, 2012’s The Bourne Legacy (starring Jeremy Renner as someone not named Jason Bourne), was a superfluous side tangent to nowhere.  A Matt Damon-sized hole was left in the franchise, a hole that has finally been filled, nearly a decade after he last played the part, with he and Greengrass returning to the popular action series.  Was it worth the wait (and the undoubtedly hefty paychecks involved in drawing both men back into the fold)?  Questionable.  Among long-awaited sequels to popular franchises, the simply-titled Jason Bourne runs circles around this summer’s unneeded sequels London Has Fallen or Independence Day: Resurgence, but it feels like a “greatest hits” cover of the original series, reheated and served for leftovers.  It doesn’t break any new ground; in fact, it rehashes various plot elements, to the extent that it comes across as an adequately engaging but ultimately superfluous sequel whose existence is unessential. Continue reading

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

beyondDIRECTOR: Justin Lin

CAST: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Sofia Boutella, Idris Elba

REVIEW:

Star Trek: Beyond, the third installment in the “new” Star Trek reboot series, with Justin Lin of the Fast & Furious series taking over from J.J. Abrams (who stepped back to merely producing while busy rebooting another sci-fi franchise with Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens), feels like a super-sized, feature-length episode of the original series (with a budget it could only have dreamed of, of course), but while there are more of Gene Rodenberry’s fingerprints on this one than its two immediate predecessors, the script by Doug Jung and Simon Pegg (the latter of whom, of course, also co-stars as Scotty) fails to go “beyond” as the title aspires toward.   Continue reading

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

tarzanDIRECTOR: David Yates

CAST: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent

REVIEW:

Is there still a place for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Victorian-era hero Tarzan in the 21st Century?  Director David Yates and screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer apparently thought so, but their case isn’t entirely convincing.  A good old-fashioned vine-swinging adventure perhaps could have been salvaged out of this material somewhere along the line, but what arrives onscreen is a jumbled, muddled, half-baked mess that, like a depressing number of other entries among this summer’s “entertainment”, offers virtually nothing memorable.  The Legend of Tarzan might have brought the 104-year-old character swinging and whooping back into theaters, but is unlikely to launch a new franchise or reignite Tarzan’s name as one to excite modern audiences. Continue reading

The Shallows (2016)

shallowsDIRECTOR: Jaume Collet-Serra

CAST: Blake Lively

REVIEW:

While the two movies’ plot specifics are very different, in a way, The Shallows reminded me of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity; both are nearly one-man shows featuring a woman using strong survival instincts and limited resources at her disposal in a grueling struggle for survival.  Also, like Gravity, while sometimes gripping in the moment, the thin premise feels a little shallow (no pun intended) and insubstantial when all is said and done.  Neither is a “bad” movie, but I also personally feel the praise showered on both is a little overblown.  Nevertheless, The Shallows may prove an engaging Friday night diversion for those seeking something other than a comedy, a superhero movie, or a CGI-fest. Continue reading

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

ID42DIRECTOR: Roland Emmerich

CAST: Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Bill Pullman, Brent Spiner, Jessie T. Usher, Maika Monroe, Judd Hirsch, William Fichtner, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sela Ward

REVIEW:

It feels a little odd to complain about a movie being “big, dumb, brainless summer entertainment” when it’s a sequel to a movie, 1996’s blockbuster Independence Day, that could be described with that same quote, but not only does Independence Day: Resurgence join London Has Fallen among this spring/summer’s superfluous sequels, but this long-gestating follow-up also manages to fall short of a predecessor that wasn’t that great to begin with.  I admit to having a bit of a nostalgic soft spot for ID4; it’s not a “great” movie, but it’s a cheesily entertaining wannabe “epic” and nostalgia has won it a fond place—perhaps more than it deserves—in the hearts of a generation that grew up with it.  But while rumors of a follow-up were around virtually since the original’s release, twenty years is an awfully long time to wait.  It’s hard to imagine many ardent Independence Day fans salivating for more.   Continue reading

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

apocalypseDIRECTOR: Bryan Singer

CAST: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters, Lucas Till, Alexandra Shipp, Olivia Munn, Ben Hardy

REVIEW:

X-Men: Apocalypse is the fourth comic book superhero movie to arrive in theaters in the first five months of 2016 (preceded by Deadpool, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justiceand Captain America: Civil War).  With so many comic book movies churning out left and right these days, over-saturation is a growing concern, and Apocalypse doesn’t do anything to distinguish itself in a crowded field.  In fact, it’s a disappointingly generic and muddled effort that, despite its attempts to up the ante, is a marked step down from its immediate predecessors X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, nor is it as good as the original live-action X-Men movie or X2: X-Men United.  It’s better than the prequel misfire X-Men Origins: Wolverine (no great accomplishment) but stands about even with X-Men: The Last Stand (though, in fairness, despite its ominous title, Apocalypse doesn’t massacre half the cast, so while as muddled and uneven as Last Stand, it’s not as aggravating).  With Days of Future Past, returning series helmsman Bryan Singer (who directed and co-wrote 1 & 2) kept the fresh rejuvenating life Matthew Vaughn breathed into First Class going strong, but here, the rebooted series’ reclaimed energy and freshness is sputtering in fits and starts. Continue reading