Even if the story presented in Snowden were 100 percent fiction, it would still be a fascinating tale to watch unfold. As directed and co-written by Oliver Stone, Snowden is one of the most intense, thought-provoking and paranoia-inducing films you’ll see all year. It’s also one of the most biased, hero-worshipping pieces he’s ever made, but that doesn’t in any way take away from its impact: a significant telling of an event whose ramifications are still being felt today.
What also doesn’t truly matter when it comes to whether or not you’ll enjoy this movie is how you feel about what Edward Snowden did. Sure, you may get angry at Stone for glorifying this man who copied and leaked classified information about illegal government surveillance of American citizens, but Stone takes us by the scruff of the neck and forces us to look at the bigger-picture issues that prompted Snowden to do what he did. It’s as aggressive and interesting filmmaking as Stone has done in many years (probably since 1995’s Nixon), and the resulting work at least makes the effort to dig deeper and point fingers (if you think Stone wouldn’t dare point fingers at the Obama administration, think again).
As long as you go into Snowden remembering that it isn’t meant to take the place of a great documentary like the Oscar-winning Citizenfour (moments from which are meticulously re-created here), you’ll likely find it easy to get lost in the intrigue and perilously mind-bending thought processes going on in our intelligence-gathering communities. Edward Snowden (played with a mastery of understated enthusiasm and smarts by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) began life as a conservative wanting to serve his country in the military, but after an injury sidelined him permanently, he turned his skills as a programmer into a job at the CIA, under the training of the perhaps too deviously played Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) and the mentorship of old-school tech expert Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), and just like that, the angel and devil are placed on Snowden’s shoulders.
Snowden’s ideas help him rise through the ranks quickly, but the more he discovers about the depths of surveillance going on both abroad and within our borders, the more distraught he becomes. After a somewhat botched field assignment with co-worker Agent Geneva (Timothy Olyphant), Snowden retires and eventually lands a job as a contractor for the NSA, where he is given access to an unfathomable amount of data that he probably shouldn’t have.
The burden of this kind of knowledge, takes its toll on his personal life as well, especially with this girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who is portrayed as a complex and independent spirit who is nevertheless truly concerned about the mental and physical impact that Snowden’s job is having on him.
With Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald’s screenplay (based on the books The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding, and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena), Snowden’s thought process is ever shifting and evolving, and it’s genuinely refreshing to watch a character on screen whose morals are changing before our eyes. It’s stressful and Gordon-Levitt’s conviction and steely reserve sells it. He also paints Snowden as a genuinely likable man, capable of hanging with just about anyone. Some of my favorite moments in the film are when he and his fellow NSA contractors sit around talking shop. Lakeith Lee Stanfield (Short Term 12, Straight Outta Compton) and Scott Eastwood show up in these scenes, and the group sell the dynamic at play in the most secret of government agencies, where even casual conversation can come back to bite you in the ass.
Stone makes it clear that it wasn’t just one factor that pushed Snowden to do what he did. The result was cumulative, and he was fairly certain what the consequences would be. The sequences that mirror moments in Citizenfour are exceptionally well crafted, with Snowden and three journalists—including Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo, playing the director of the documentary), lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and The Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson sporting a brilliant Scottish accent)—in a Hong Kong hotel room taking every precaution not to get caught, as the writers prepare to receive illegal documents.
A theme that appears frequently in Snowden is this idea of how casually a secret can be found out or, almost worse, get left unprotected in a high-security environment. One such incident early on in Snowden’s career occurs when a chill co-worker, Gabriel (Ben Schnetzer), allows Snowden to watch him remotely turn on a laptop camera using a program that Snowden didn’t even know existed. The incident triggers something in Snowden that infects the way he behaves at home with Lindsay, and it begins the chipping-away at his justification of government policies to something far more questioning (at least internally). With each new job (which is usually accompanied by a boost in security clearance), Snowden learns more, and it crushes his old belief system.
The most frustrating thing about Stone’s telling of Snowden’s story is that it’s missing a satisfying conclusion. Every aspect of the film feels immediate. Stone is presenting us with stories of the past; these are stories and issues still being figured out today. The impact of what Snowden did and the consequences of his actions are still being analyzed and figured out, and that reality gives Snowden a real charge. You don’t even have to embrace Stone’s hero-building tactics, but it’s impossible to sit through this movie and not be intrigued and curious about Edward Snowden as a man willing to be in exile in Moscow for years while his country figures out what to do with him.
With many of their previous works, writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard took what was familiar, pulled it apart, and constructed a fresh take using horror film tropes we all knew. In A Horrible Way to Die, You’re Next, and The Guest, it wasn’t so much about spotting the ’80s or ’90s references as it was recognizing the vibe. But with Blair Witch, their 15-years-later sequel to the groundbreaking found-footage work The Blair Witch Project, the filmmakers do something even more unexpected—they stick to the formula so faithfully that the result is often frustration peppered with a few jump scares, most of which seem to happen at edit points throughout this (in theory) assembled footage.
Certainly, the setup worked for me. James (James Allen McCune) is the brother of Heather, the filmmaker from the first Blair Witch movie (thank the stars that Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is being treated like it never existed), who vanished with two colleagues in the woods of rural Maryland in an area dripping with centuries old stories about a witch living in the woods. James has recently had additional footage dropped on this doorstep that he’s fairly certain shows Heather fleetingly, and he’s determined to head back into the woods to search for any sign of her or the mysterious house shown in the footage but never discovered by search parties.
He grabs a whole bunch of cameras—from hand-held to ear-piece cameras, and even a drone—as well as girlfriend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), oldest friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and his lady friend Ashley (Corbin Reid). They head to find people who allegedly know where Heather’s crew’s equipment was found, and soon they are with the creepy Lane (Wes Robinson) and his girlfriend Talia (Valorie Curry), who say they’ll take them to the spot if the film crew takes these thrill seekers with them to find the house. And you pretty much know where things head from here. Noises, stick figures hanging from trees, dimly lit camera lights that make it impossible to see more than 10 feet in front of you in the best conditions are all part of the experience. The group gets separated, they lose hours and eventually days of time while sleeping, and there is much running in search of a way out of woods that refuses to let them go.
Part of what I liked about The Blair Witch Project is that it was pretty clear that whatever was in the woods tormenting these young people was attempting to drive them insane before any threat of physical harm came into play. And that’s pretty much what happens this time around as well. The woods puts the camper through a barrage of torment before really putting them in any real danger, but there’s only so much tease and fake scares we can handle before we call bullshit. We have the history and legends of the woods spelled out for us again by the local newcomers, and things that are told to us in those moments come into play during the film’s final chase through the seemingly endless corridors and tunnels of the creepy house in the woods.
I’m not trying to imply that Blair Witch is completely ineffective, but where the original film made great use of both creepy sounds and silence, this version is all about camera glitches causing loud pops and bangs (that only the audiences can hear, mind you) when the video switches from one shot to another. As for the loud sounds the characters can hear, that’s mostly the exceedingly earth-shattering explosion of trees getting snapped in half. Not that we see any of that, but the noises are eerie and unexplained, even if they are largely non-threatening.
Wingard fares much better in the witch’s house. The close quarters, rundown setting and darkness around every corner add up to a bit of pulse pounding. A particular scene in which Lisa lands in a narrow tunnel under the house, barely able to squeeze through the narrow space is beyond claustrophobic, and we’re just waiting for her to get stuck and realize that this is how she’s going to die. The moment works because it plays off every fear imaginable; I wish the rest of the film did the same. None of the performances stand out in my mind; people vanish for a time only to pop back up unexpectedly and make us jump at something; and as someone who really was transfixed by the original work, I was mortified watching Blair Witch to discover that the filmmaker decided to give us a glimpse of this presence that is tormenting our heroes, which seems so unnecessary. What always made the witch so scary is that we never saw her.
Something about the entire piece feels like a cheat, and while I certainly understand the allure Barrett and Wingard must have felt getting to play in this sandbox, the entire experience left me wishing for at least a few new ideas that paid off. And it hurts me to say a lot of this because I know we’re going to get more great works from Barrett and Wingard. Blair Witch feels like an unnecessary stop on their journey.
THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK—THE TOURING YEARS
While the new Ron Howard-directed documentary about The Beatles doesn’t only cover the band as a touring entity, it does zero in on the type of people they were, especially with each other and those who worked most closely with them, during that four-year period from mid-1962 until the band quit touring in August 1966. The film doesn’t state it explicitly, but the implication is that as grueling a process as touring was on the four players, once The Beatles became strictly a studio-focused entity, individual personalities truly rose to the surface (as did creativity, admittedly), and the divides deepened.
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years is a useful film on several levels. Featuring a bevy of restored and remastered concert footage, the movie works strictly as a one-stop shop for the best available live footage of the band. True credit must be given to the technicians responsible for the audio work here, who somehow managed to extract the overwhelming amount of screaming coming from the audiences that was so deafening that the band members couldn’t hear each other. Some of the footage seems to come from blurry home movie cameras of people in the crowd, but even that is extraordinary as a document of what it was like in the fray of the near-psychotic audiences.
Eight Days a Week doesn’t only focus on The Beatles’ live experience. It dives into their transition from club band to British phenomenon, their strategy to conquer America (thank you, Ed Sullivan), first two movies, various controversies they provoked, and the usual emphasis on their hair, clothes and overall cuteness. What comes across, even in the familiar material, is that the world simply had no precedent for this level of popularity and mass hysteria surrounding a musical act. And that leap into the unknown clearly extended into the realm of touring, where issues of security, terrible audio equipment and general organization seemed to plague every stop The Beatle made, particularly in America. Thanks to rare archival footage and interviews with all four band members (including new interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr), we get a true sense of the danger and anxiety that surrounded each performance.
Even outside of the actual, relatively short time they had to perform each night, the demands on the band members were just as grueling off stage, with constant demands for their time for interviews, endorsements, and even recording sessions. Their regular producer, the late George Martin, speaks about the insistence by manager Brian Epstein that The Beatles have a new single out every three months and a new album out every six, which required squeezing in recording sessions whenever possible and making each minute count. As one interview subject notes, it’s not that amazing that they were able to work on such a tight schedule; it was that every song was top quality, even when produced in a mad rush.
Howard manages to squeeze in carefully chosen recent interviews with Whoopi Goldberg (who saw the band at Shea Stadium as a child), Eddie Izzard, Elvis Costello, Sigourney Weaver (who saw them perform at the Hollywood Bowl), Richard Lester (director of A Hard Day’s Night and Help!), and Larry Kane (a radio newsman who toured with The Beatles and became close friends with them all) to lend a sense of perspective and fandom to the mix. Eight Days a Week also gives us historical context for these performances, especially in America, where they refused to play to segregated audiences in the South, forcing venue owners to integrate crowds or risk losing a major payday.
Some of the most eye-opening material comes from footage of the band touring in Australia and the Far East and its fairly polite crowds of toe-tapping but otherwise quiet audiences (something the band actually loved). But Eight Days a Week always brings it back to the interpersonal relationships among the band members and their most inner circle. All decisions had to be unanimous, including the one to stop touring in 1966, a decision that boosted the creativity of their recorded output (something they knew they could never reproduce on stage).
It’s almost impossible to fathom that The Beatles played more than 800 live shows over the span of about 1000 days, but thanks to this soul-stirring and occasionally tension-filled document, we’re thrown into the arenas and stadiums with the band to witness 12 full or partial performances from every corner of the venue. The sound and picture is beautifully re-crafted, and if you have any level of affection for The Beatles, you’re in for a hell of a time in the theater. Above all else, this film demands you see it with other fans in a darkened venue with a quality sound system—home video be damned.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. After the movie, there is a 30-minute bonus feature of The Beatles’ 1965 Shea Stadium performance, with digitally remastered sound and restored 4K picture. Perhaps more than anything in Eight Days a Week, it gives you the purest sense of just how completely out of control and on the brink of chaos these concerts truly were. It’s both thrilling and borderline terrifying.
MAYA ANGELOU: AND STILL I RISE
In a perfect world, you would just know to go see this. Of course, if the world were perfect, you’d already know most of the information detailed in this expansive documentary about the late, great Maya Angelou, and you primarily would be going to the film to see it all combined in one nicely edited package from co-directors Bob Hercules (Senator Obama Goes to Africa) and Rita Coburn Whack. In fact, one of the most impressive elements of And Still I Rise is so rarely seen material from Angelou’s pre-writing/activist career as a singer and dancer known as Miss Calypso who toured the country with her provocative routines.
Narrated primarily by the subject herself from archival interviews, as well as newer conversations prior to her death in 2014, the movie goes almost year by year through her greatest achievements—her first book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; her friendships with James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X; her career as an actor and filmmaker—to devastating lows, including three failed marriages. It remains remarkable how she always managed to draw on all of her life experiences to inform her work, from her years living dirt poor in a small Arkansas town to writing a commissioned poem for fellow Arkansas native Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration ceremony.
The inclusion of interviews by those who knew Angelou best are important (Oprah Winfrey, Alfre Woodard, Cicely Tyson and even rapper Common have great stories about working with her), but I was supremely put off every time her son Guy Johnson appears on screen. He adds very little by way of perspective or insight into Angelou as a person, and it seems his greatest contribution to her life was grounding her with a steady stream of sarcasm and cynicism. He seems to resent growing up in Angelou’s shadow, while still understanding that doing so afforded him a great life in the process. When he turns up, I tuned out.
But overall, And Still I Rise is a comprehensive and enriching fountain of information, and hearing Angelou’s deep and velvety voice one more time makes everything feel safe again. I can’t help but wonder how she would have responded to the times we’re in today. Her carefully chosen, spiritually healing words would be a great comfort today and perhaps even a much-needed rallying cry in favor of sanity. Above all things, the film makes us realize how irreplaceable she was.
The film opens today for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Co-directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack will be appearing in various combinations during the first week of shows, with director of photography Keith Walker also in attendance at select screenings. Go to the Gene Siskel Film Center’s event page for details and tickets.
AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY
If your story is almost a complete fabrication, will it still make for a fascinating documentary? Hell to the Yes, as is proven by the never boring, sometimes shocking Author: the JT LeRoy Story, a collection of stories courtesy of Laura Albert, the 40-something housewife and mother who invented the drug-addicted young gay hustler named JT LeRoy, who went on to become a much-celebrated writer of his (much younger) generation. Rarely has it been more true that the story of LeRoy is only part of the story, and director Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston) does his best to weave the fact and the fiction into an endlessly riveting dissection of the creative mind.
In order to pull off this literary con, who included “memoirs” about growing up with a prostitute mother (“Sarah” and “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things”), Albert transformed her sister-in-law into LeRoy, complete with a short, blonde wig and a thick Southern accent. Before long, “LeRoy” was making personal appearances with her trusted assistant (Albert, now using a British accent) and meeting celebrities all itching to get next to the “It” writer of the day. Author teaches us just how desperate some famous people are to align themselves with the voices of their generation, and LeRoy hung with the greatest of the great, including Bono, Courtney Love, Gus van Sant (who was planning a film version of “Sarah”), Michael Pitt (who would have starred), Eddie Vedder, Michael Stipe and Billy Corgan, one of the few confidantes to whom Albert confessed her true identity.
And Albert loved to record all of her phone calls, so if you had a conversation with her LeRoy (she always did the talking for him on the phone), your sordid behavior was likely captured. There’s an especially awful moment where Courtney Love takes a break from their conversation to do a line of cocaine, which you hear her snort quite clearly. One of the best extended sequences involves actress Asia Argento literally seducing the LeRoy stand-in in order to get the film rights to make “The Heart is Deceitful…,” which she did; the resulting film is actually quite impressive.
Whether you know this story or not, you get an unmistakable sense that all of this is going to fall apart at some point. Albert was telling a few too many people the truth, she was branching out on her own, using her real name for a staff writing gig on the HBO series “Deadwood”; and having a tougher time keeping the sister-in-law on board with the LeRoy program. JT was always meant to be a bit of a mystery, but the more he/she was seen in public, the more people began digging into his background, including a reporter from The New York Times, who published a groundbreaking exposé in January 2006, which blew open the doors into the Albert-LeRoy connection.
Albert’s claims that she created LeRoy for therapeutic reasons are somewhat backed up by her account of conversations with her therapist (always as LeRoy, by the way). But it’s tough not to look at her as one of the great pathological liars of our time, who also happened to be a gifted writer. There’s no way the Author doc doesn’t absorb you and pull you into its literary quicksand. Most audiences will be rooting for her to continue getting away with the ruse as long as possible, but when it all falls apart, things get ugly in a hurry and director Feuerzeig shifts the tone of his work from celebratory to one that might elicit full-blown anxiety. Author is one of the great stories of celebrity worship, to be sure, but Albert’s writings still had a major impact on its younger readers especially, and just because they aren’t non-fiction doesn’t make them any less devastating and powerful. So in a sense, Author is also about getting a bit of redemption. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
My familiarity with the National Theatre production of London Road goes back to the buzz it caused when it opened five years ago, and I’ll admit, I didn’t quite understand how the production took shape before an audience the way it was described. Playwright (and screenwriter for this film adaptation) Alecky Blythe built her work entirely from interviews with residents of the town of Ipswich in Suffolk circa 2006, after a serial killer plagued their rural area, killing five prostitutes in a short span of time. The incident shook the dreary town to its core, but after the killer was caught, many of them (those who didn’t move away) were inspired to revitalize the town, even if the results felt somewhat artificial and forced. And did I mention this is a musical?
Blythe uses the residents’ own words (as well as those from police, newscasters and even the surviving sex workers) to build something resembling songs, but really she’s simply finding the rhythms of the language—complete with verbal deadwood, tics, bad grammar, pauses, all verbatim. Passages are repeated, sung at first by those who said it, then again by other characters, until a more melodic song emerges. None of the talented actors are particularly great singers, but that isn’t really the point. The idea is about repeating seemingly innocuous phrases and sentences until their true, darker meaning is revealed.
The first part of the story is about paranoia and living in a community where anyone around you could be the killer. The always great Olivia Colman stars as Julie, a nosy neighbor who turns into something of a town leader who refuses to let these crimes (or the prostitution that preceded them) destroy her block. One of the best sequences in the film involves a taxi ride in which a twitchy driver goes on and on giving his vague profile of who he thinks the serial killer really is to an older woman in the back, getting increasingly more nervous as he goes on about how his research into serial killers doesn’t make him one. Would it make you any more nervous to know that the driver is played by Tom Hardy with a cockney accent? He’s astonishing here, in what is essentially an extended cameo.
Director Rufus Norris (who also directed the stage version) doesn’t intend to mask the theatrical origins of London Road. Quite the contrary, he embraces the contrast between people singing and seeing them go through their daily routines as if nothing unusual is going on. The resulting impact begins as darkly funny moves into deeply upsetting and settles nicely on being quite touching as the townspeople attempt to pull their lives together again. As if to emphasize that this story is about the town and not about a murderer, we never even lay eyes on the killer, who lived right in the midst of many of the characters to whom we’re introduced, and that’s a major factor in the success of the movie. For those looking for something they’ve likely never seen before on screen, London Road is quite singular, deftly executed, and delicately performed. The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.