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Paterson (2016)
Life itself is poetry, 18 October 2016

I'm not sure if Jim Jarmusch ("Only Lovers Left Alive") in Paterson wants to make America great again by giving us his vision of the way it used to be, or is telling us that we only have to look around us to discover that it's great right now. Performed by a brilliantly authentic Adam Driver ("Midnight Special"), Paterson is not only the name of the city in New Jersey known for its resident poet William Carlos Williams, but is also his name. He is a poet whose Haiku-like verses (actually written by Ron Padgett) are reminiscent of the city's own poet William Carlos Williams. He writes a new poem every day (or finishes an old one) on the #23 bus he drives before and during his trip. Though his loving, energetic, somewhat scattered wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani, "Finding Altamira") keeps asking him to make copies of them, he resists the idea, preferring to keep them in his secret notebook.

The film has little conflict, family dysfunction, or mental health issues. It is about what works and even (wonder of wonders) about a marriage that is not falling apart. Like most people with jobs and families, Paterson has a daily routine. There's too much variation in his day to call it a takeoff on Groundhog Day, but it does have that "same old, same old" quality. He awakes shortly after 6am, has a bowl of cereal that looks suspiciously like Cheerios, walks to his job driving the #23 bus through the streets of Paterson, listening in on conversations (often with a broad smile on his face) of passengers who talk about anything from Italian anarchists to boxer Hurricane Carter and comedian Lou Costello.

He comes home at six, corrects a leaning mailbox that moves daily thanks to his grumpy English bulldog Marvin (RIP), has dinner (some on the exotic side) talks with Laura who fills him in on the many projects she has going on including painting black and white circles on draperies, learning to play the guitar, and making cupcakes to sell at the local farmers market. He then takes Marvin for a walk and goes for a beer at the local pub where he chats with the owner Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley, "Carrie"), and often acts as a moderator between Everett (William Jackson Harper, "True Story"), a dramatic actor who desperately wants to reunite with his ex-wife Maria (Chasten Harmon.

The poems that Paterson reads as the words are flashed on the screen are not about odes to nightingales (though there's nothing wrong with that) but about down-to-earth things, such as one about matches, inspired by Ohio Blue Tip matchboxes that have disappeared from our lives. In "The Run," he says, "I go through trillions of molecules that move aside to make way for me while on both sides trillions more stay where they are. The windshield wiper blade starts to squeak. The rain has stopped. I stop. On the corner a boy in a yellow raincoat holding his mother's hand." In other poems he lets the world know how much he is in love with his wife, though he confides in us that he occasionally looks at other woman, something which as far as I know is still legal.

To Paterson, a poem should be simple and direct and he is moved by one such poem by a 9-year-old girl who recites it to him while she is waiting for her mother and sister. He complements her on her poem about a waterfall, remembering a few lines and reciting them to Laura when he gets home. Contrary to most films where, except for films about wealthy financial elites, work does not play a big role in the life of the characters, Paterson makes real what daily living is about for a majority of working people. The film has warmth and humor wrapped in a portrait of a city which has seen better days, a city in which Jarmusch creates a structure of closely observed small moments revealed with empathy.

Paterson is a man who is not looking for life to give him satisfaction but who brings satisfaction to it, a man who knows that satisfaction does not depend on accumulating things but in being grounded in who you are and what you can bring to the world. He comes to appreciate that poetry is not extraneous to life but that life itself is poetry. Although the film presents an idealistic picture of a city without visible slums, drugs, and crime which we know exists, Jarmusch may be providing us with a welcome counterpoint, showing us the way our cities should be and can be again.

A film about coming and going, 16 October 2016

Dedicated to Ozu star Setsuko Hara, Argentine director Matias Piñeiro's Hermia and Helena follows his three previous films, "Viola," "The Princess of France", and "Rosalinda," with a work depicting characters loosely based on female heroines in William Shakespeare's comedies. Shot in Buenos Aires and partly in New York, the film centers on Camila (Agustina Muñoz, "The Princess of France"), a Buenos Aires theater director, who has been invited to New York to translate Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" into Spanish and then go back to Argentina to rehearse. According to Piñeiro, "It is a film about coming and going, about changing states, changing languages and sounds." Inspired by his own experience in New York where he came on a fellowship in the arts, Piñeiro shifts the focus from a high energy fast-talking beginning in Buenos Aires to a more laid back thoughtful mood in New York. Camilla is in New York to replace Carmen (Maria Villar, "The Princess of France"), a friend from Buenos Aires, in the institute as well as in her rental apartment. Like the two young women in Shakespeare's play, Camila and her friend share relationships in a sequence of vignettes that take place over the course of a year. Divided into chapters bearing the names of the characters featured in the episode such as "Carmen & Camila," "Camila & Danièle," "Gregg & Camila," and so on, the film is enhanced by a spirited piano score.

Piñeiro manages to keep things light and the sequences have a playful feeling in keeping with the spirit of the Shakespeare play. Camilla begins where Carmen left off, picking up on her relationship with hipster Yank Lukas (Keith Poulson, "Little Sister") and local filmmaker Gregg (Dustin Guy Defa) who shows one of his short films made from footage of a 1940's black and white film with a voice-over based on Du Maurier's Rebecca. There is an enigmatic relationship with Daniele (Mati Diop, "Fort Buchanan"), another member of the institute, who has been traveling in the mid-west and who sends Camila post-cards from the cities she visits that Camila hangs on a map on her wall. Flashbacks to Buenos Aires also include Carmen's boyfriend Leo (Julian Larquier Tellarini, "Terror 5").

The film is about movement, from one place to another and from one relationship to another but the characters and their relationships remain undeveloped. Piñeiro jumps from sequence to sequence without staying long enough for us to get to know them as human beings. Though the episodes are labeled "one month earlier," "three months earlier," and so forth, the flashbacks are confusing as to time and place and are difficult to follow. If we are left uninvolved in Camila's various attempts at personal connection up to this point, we are definitely engaged in her search for a deeper experience that leads to a reunion with Horace (Dan Sallitt, "Honeymoon"), the estranged American father whom she had never met.

Though Hermia's father Egeus in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a demanding parent who insists that she marry Demetrius and forego marrying her love for Lysander, Horace is not Hermia's authoritarian father but the reverse. In a visit to his home in upstate New York, the two exchange a series of intimate questions, playing a game of you ask, I tell, then vice versa. The conversation maintains a tone of civility and we get a more rounded picture of Camila but the film drifts slowly but noticeably into melancholy.

Piñeiro has said about Hermia and Helena that, "Many plot elements remain somewhat hidden. Instead, you focus on the atmosphere that springs from the characters' encounters with each other." While the atmosphere is always present for us to focus on, the "somewhat hidden" elements of the plot border on obscurity and ultimately detract from our ability to understand the characters. According to the director, "Not everything is connected to everything." This was also true in my experience.

One of Koreeda's best films, 16 October 2016

Fear that your children may mimic your worst qualities is the driving force in Hirokazu Koreeda's ("Our Little Sister") After the Storm (Umi yori mo mada fukaku), a compassionate look at the struggles of a Japanese family. Its title derived from the lyrics of an old pop song, the film is set in Kiyose, a city near Tokyo where it is beautifully shot in the housing compound where Koreeda grew up by cinematographer Yutaka Yamasaki. Ryota Shinoda (Hiroshi Abe, "Everest: The Summit of the Gods") is a novelist who has not had a story published in fifteen years and is forced to work for a private detective agency, which he claims is solely to do research for his next novel. Using his detective job to spy on Kyoko's new boyfriend with the help of his young detective-partner (Sosuke Ikematsu, "Mubansô"), he learns that she is dating a wealthy businessman who is intrusive in Shingo's life.

A gambling addict who squanders much of his earnings, Ryota's relationship with his young son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa) is in jeopardy as his ex-wife Kyoko Shiraishi (Yoko Maki, "Like Father, Like Son") threatens to keep him from seeing Shingo until he catches up on his child support payments. The first time we see Ryota we are not impressed. He is going through his recently deceased father's private belongings to see if he can find anything that he could sell. It seems, however, that his father was also a gambler and Ryota's search might have been better conducted at the local pawn shop. While it is clear that he is not a role model for parenting, Ryota is man of considerable charm and Koreeda does not stand in judgment of his actions but depicts his travails with warmth and humor. We see that in spite of his dubious habits, his sister (Satomi Kobayashi) and his employer are both willing to lend him money.

With the help of his own mother, the spunky and very astute Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki, "Our Little Sister"), Ryota has his sights set on reuniting with Kyoko and Shingo. His love for his son is very real but he seems incapable of breaking from his demons, the same ones that dominated his father's life. Attempting to win back Shingo's love, he takes him out for a hamburger, buys him new shoes, and visits Yoshiko, the boy's beloved grandmother. Knowing that a typhoon is on the way, the family comes together to spend the night and to wrestle with the direction that their lives will take. "Why can't men ever love the present," Yoshiko wonders, highlighting an important message of the film, that people must accept the reality of how they really are.

While there is truth to the idea that we must accept who we are, there is a thin line between accepting your limitations and recognizing that you have the power to transform your life, to live the life you want rather than the life you are resigned to. Also, while the idea that sons will always take after their father is accepted without question, the reality in my experience is that sons will either take after their fathers or make very sure that they do not. After the Storm is one of Koreeda's best films and, as always, he elicits exceptional performances from children as well as brilliant takes by Kiki and Hiroshi Abe, but, in my view, its message is debatable.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A real experience of life fully lived, 16 October 2016

Dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy turns a once warm and ebullient family man into a solemn, withdrawn, and angry loner in Kenneth Lonergan's ("Margaret") bittersweet drama Manchester by the Sea, one of the best films of 2016. Set in the picturesque city of Manchester on Massachusetts' north shore, cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes ("Martha Marcy May Marlene") captures the rugged beauty of the New England town with its bays filled with trawlers and its winter streets and municipal buildings covered in a shimmering white. It is a town that looks as if it has not changed in decades, or even centuries.

Lee Chandler, in a haunting performance by Casey Affleck ("Interstellar"), is a janitor/handyman who spends his days painting, doing minor plumbing work, repairing leaks, and so on or just giving advice while making sure to avoid any social interaction with the people he is working for. His nights are spent drinking alone in bars where he is quick to start fights or at home watching TV in his small apartment. There is no hint during the film's first half hour about what has brought him to his present state of disequilibrium, but in his mumbling inability to express his thoughts, we know that something unspoken is driving his need for isolation.

Lee has been living in nearby Quincy but, when his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler, "Carol") succumbs to a heart attack, he has to return to Manchester to make funeral arrangements and attend the reading of the will and to confront the people that he has turned away from. His grief over his brother's death turns to shock, however, when he discovers that he has been named the legal guardian of Joe's 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"), a popular high school student. Since Patrick's mom Elise (Gretchen Mol, "Anesthesia") is an alcoholic who left town long ago, Lee is the only person who can assume the task.

It is one, however, that he does not feel ready for. Eventually, the seminal event that changed Lee's life forever is revealed, depicted in a straightforward manner without histrionics or pandering, even if the overused baroque music tends to amplify the drama beyond what is required. In flashback, we see that Lee was once a happy family man with a loving wife Randi (Michelle Williams, "Suite Française") and three young children and we see him joking around with his young nephew Patrick (Ben O'Brien) on their fishing boat. Assuming the responsibility of being a father-figure to Patrick, we glimpse the man that Lee used to be.

The dialogue between the abrasive Lee and the feisty, sharp-tongued Patrick feels real and without guile but channeling the chemistry they have together into rebuilding his life is a challenge. Manchester by the Sea is a serious film but is balanced by humor. In one such scene, Patrick awkwardly attempts to hide the obvious from his mom about studying in his room with his girlfriend. Another funny incident takes place when Lee is used as a cover for Patrick's surreptitious juggling of his two girlfriends. The issues between them take a more serious tone, however, when Lee is convinced that he and Patrick should move to Boston, a suggestion that Patrick rebels at, citing his high school girlfriends, his being on the soccer team, and his playing in the school band.

Though Michelle Williams has a small role, she turns in one of her best performances. In a powerful confrontation with Lee, it is clear that she still loves him but has felt compelled to suppress it in order to bury the past and move on. Manchester by the Sea belongs to Casey Affleck, however, who turns in what is arguably the best performance of his career. The film does not have the sort of neat resolution that you may have come to expect but what it does have are real people whose lives you want to be a part of and you know that that world is not one that can only happen in the movies, but a real experience of life fully lived in all its pain and all its joy.

5 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Not one of Loach's best efforts, 9 October 2016

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year old heart attack victim who is trying to collect welfare in the city of Newcastle, England comes up against a dehumanizing system that seems to be out to thwart him at every step of the process in I, Daniel Blake, British director Ken Loach and his long time scriptwriter Ken Laverty's latest collaboration. Winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, the film has a social conscience and does not hesitate to pull out all the emotional stops, but is unfortunately undercut by an excessive amount of speech making, contrived situations, and sentimentality. Performed by British stand-up comedian Dave Johns, the film is guaranteed to bring laughter, tears, and also anger at the system's coldhearted bureaucrats who know about rules and regulations but not so much about people's needs.

The film opens with a black screen. Slowly, we begin to hear a man being interviewed by a woman who identifies herself as a health-care professional. Having to answer lame questions about his cognitive abilities and motor skills but nothing about his heart, Dan tells the interviewer, "We're getting further and further away from my heart." He has been told by his doctor that he is not ready to go back to work and has applied for an Employment and Support Allowance, a stipend paid to those unable to work because of a disability. Unfortunately, the government concludes that he is fit for work, forcing him to appeal to the "decision maker" to change the ruling.

Forced to jump through a set of hoops just to earn the right to appeal, Dan must prove that he has spent 35 hours a week looking for work. Applying for Jobseeker's Allowance and not being computer savvy, he has to seek help just to learn how to use a mouse. When he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother with two small children (Briana Shann and Dylan Phillip McKiernan) who has just come from London and is in need of assistance, the story becomes about people working together to provide mutual support in dealing with a faceless bureaucracy.

Dan and Katie become friends with Dan offering moral support and using his carpenter skills to make her flat more livable. Katie looks for work as a cleaner, sacrifices food to make sure her children are fed, and is even forced to work briefly as a call girl. One of the most heartbreaking scenes occurs at a visit to the local Food Bank when Katie has a breakdown after opening and eating a can of baked beans, but both are resilient and determined not to let the system crush them.

I, Daniel Blake, without question, comes from a good place and Blake captures our allegiance with his grumpy determination, kindness and concern for others, but there is little room here for nuance, balance, or objectivity. The film exists to make a point and everything else is subordinate to that. Though the performances are first-rate and Johns has perfect comic timing, I, Daniel Blake is not, in my view, one of Loach's better efforts.

Sully (2016)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Real heroism does not always mean glory and parades, 4 October 2016

Real heroism does not always mean glory and parades. Sometimes it consists of simply doing what works – getting the job done in a way that those affected will always be grateful. Such a hero is Chesley Sullenberger, a US Airways pilot whose presence of mind, competence and good judgment saved the lives of 155 passengers and crew when he landed his stricken plane in New York's Hudson River in 2009, an episode known as the "Miracle on the Hudson." This miracle is celebrated in 86-year-old director Clint Eastwood's Sully, based on Sullenberger's memoir Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters. Written by Todd Komarnicki, the film stars Tom Hanks ("A Hologram for the King") as the calm, unflappable Sully and Aaron Eckhart ("Courage") as his supportive co-pilot Jeff Skiles.

Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern establish the tension early. We see the Captain and co-pilot go through their pre-takeoff checklist and witness the takeoff and the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549, en route from LaGuardia Airport in New York to Charlotte, North Carolina, settling back for a long flight. Six minutes after takeoff, however, the plane is hit by a flock of geese, crippling both of its engines at an altitude of only 2,800 feet. While we know the eventual outcome, Sully's agonizing decision to land the plane in the frigid Hudson River after realizing he could not make it to the nearest airport is a heart-pounding sequence.

While Eastwood succumbs to some disaster clichés with frightened parents holding onto their screaming children, the evacuation, for the most part, is done with restraint and the rescue by boas and ferries in the vicinity is expertly handled. The crash sequence (shown several times during the film) is interspersed with flashbacks to Sully's early life, his present-day nightmares, and phone calls to his anxiety-ridden wife Lorraine (Laura Linney, "Mr. Holmes"). Much of the film's drama centers around the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing in which board members played by Mike O'Malley ("Concussion"), Jamey Sheridan ("Spotlight"), and Anna Gunn ("Equity") question Sully's decision to land in the river, suggesting that the second engine was still functional enough for him to bring the plane back to LaGuardia or fly to nearby Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. If their assessment is the correct one, it would lead to a damaging verdict of "pilot error."

The NTSB uses computer simulations to try to prove their case but Sully tells them that, "Simulations take all humanity out of the cockpit." On questioning, Sully learns that the "sim" pilots needed as many as seventeen practice sessions and he asks that 35 seconds be entered into the calculations to reflect the human equation. It is no secret that the real NTSB has disputed the prosecutorial manner in which the hearings are portrayed, saying that they were only seeking information in an objective, professional manner, a description that incidentally Sully Has agreed with. Tom Hanks is the perfect choice to play Sully. Though beleaguered with stress, self-doubt, and media hounds, his humanity and strength of character come through, allowing the film to deliver a believable message of human resourcefulness in the face of sudden crisis.

Though Sully is portrayed as a conventional, solid-citizen type, in reality he had the courage to step up at the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's subcommittee on aviation on February 24, 2009, telling them that, after flying almost 20,000 hours for 29 years, his decision to remain as a professional airline pilot came at a significant financial cost. His pay, he said, "has been cut 40 percent, my pension, like most airline pensions, has been terminated and replaced by a PBGC guarantee worth only pennies on the dollar." "I am worried," he went on, "that the airline piloting profession will not be able to continue to attract that best and the brightest. … If we do not sufficiently value the airline piloting profession and future pilots are less experienced and less skilled, it logically follows that we will see negative consequences to the flying public––and to our country." Telling the truth is another attribute of a true hero.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
The true magic of reality, 4 October 2016

Gorgeous colors and graceful poetic images mark The Red Turtle (La Tortue rouge), a wordless 80-minute animated film co-produced by the Japanese Studio Ghibli and Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit. Made in France, the dialogue-free film was produced by Takahata Isao and co-written by French director Pascale Ferran whose 2014 film Bird People depicted a loving connection between man and nature. De Wit was recruited by famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki after he saw his 2000 Oscar-winning short Father and Daughter, a charcoal-drawn, also wordless film, about loss.

The Red Turtle begins in a raging storm as a bearded young man defies death and is carried by enormous waves to the shore of a tiny island as pieces of his shattered boat wash up behind him. With his only companions being crabs and caterpillars, the nameless man plans to escape by constructing a raft of bamboo sticks but his raft is broken up during several attempts by a huge turtle of flaming red. Aggressively attempting to prevent this from happening again, the man turns the turtle over, leaving it to die.

When the turtle transforms into a human female companion, the film becomes a beautiful and moving fable that recaptures the mystery and wonder of life. The Red Turtle is a short film but it is filled with adventure as when the couple's son tumbles into the same pool his father had almost drowned in several years earlier. There is also a raging tsunami that threatens to engulf the island, dream sequences including one in which he imagines a string quartet playing classical music at low tide, and allegories about life, all supported by the exquisite score of composer Laurent Perez del Mar (Now or Never).

While I did not always connect emotionally with the animated characters, I was awed by the grace of the film's ballet-like underwater images, the glow of a magical sky, and the water, one minute a raging grey, the next a serene azure blue. Of course the central mystery of the film is open to interpretation. For me, it is an allegory about the power we all have to transform the quality of our life. Rather than being stuffed into a box labeled mythical fantasy or magical realism, the film is about the true magic of reality so often lost to us by our present-day scientific "rationality."

3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
About moral character, accountability, and spiritual redemption, 4 October 2016

While The Unknown Girl, the latest film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne ("Two Days, One Night"), is suggestive of social and political issues such as immigration, unemployment, and economic imbalance, its main concern is with moral character, accountability, and spiritual redemption. Like many other films of the Dardenne Brothers, it is simple, natural, and direct, without using a musical background or resorting to sentimentality. Consistent with recent exceptional performances from established actresses such as Cecile de France in The Kid With a Bike and Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, Adele Haenel ("Love at First Flight") is transfixing as Dr. Jenny Davin, a young general practitioner in Saraing, Belgium whose quiet strength, professionalism, and fierce determination dominate the film and make it a worthy addition to the two-time Palme d'Or winners' oeuvre.

Shot by cinematographer Alain Marcoen ("Two Days, One Night"), the film begins at a small clinic where Jenny has been filling in for the retiring Dr. Habran (Yves Larec) but must soon decide whether to accept a more lucrative position out of town. When a young boy has convulsions, Jenny deal with it promptly but later calls out her intern,, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) for letting his emotions get the better of him, a dressing down that causes him to rethink whether or not he wants to be a doctor, though she later confesses to him that she was being high-handed. Her next admonition to Julien, however, has much more serious consequences.

When they hear an after-hours buzzing on the intercom, she instructs him to ignore it, telling the young intern that he cannot let patients rule him. When a young African woman is found dead on the opposite side of the freeway by the river Meuse, however, Jenny is riddled with guilt. It is soon clear that the deceased woman was the same person who knocked on their door late at night, yet without any identification papers, discovering her identity and the cause of her death is a challenge which becomes the central focus of the film. Though it deals with a possible criminal investigation, it is less of a "whodunit" than an exploration of the many ways in which people deal with feelings of guilt.

Realizing that if she had answered the ring, the young woman might still be alive, Jenny takes it upon herself to conduct a solo investigation. Hoping to discover the victim's name and find anyone who knew her in order to give her a proper burial, Jenny walks around the town, talking to adults and children who may have seen the woman, showing them her photo and reassuring them that any information they provide will be held in confidence. Though most are in denial and refuse to cooperate, Jenny is able to pick up important signals, especially in an interview with a teenager (Louka Minneli) when his accelerated pulse rate indicates that he may not be telling the truth.

The Unknown Girl is mostly muted with little variation in tone, but there are moments of joy when two young male patients sing a lovely song they wrote for Jenny, and when an elderly woman throws a gift of a panettone out the window into Jenny's waiting arms. It also touches on the spiritual when a man asks Jenny, "Why should I screw up my life if she's already dead?" and Jenny replies, "Because, if she were dead, she wouldn't be on our minds." While a too-neat resolution and a lack of the element of surprise keep the film from being in the top rank of the Dardennes' works, its message that healing can only begin when there is a willingness to communicate and to be responsible for one's actions is as good as any that have been delivered in previous films.

Snowden (2016)
2 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Further opens the debate between freedom and security, 25 September 2016

In 1848, Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay that he called "Civil Disobedience." That essay expressed the view that when a person's conscience and the laws clash, that person must follow his or her conscience. Thoreau himself set an example by refusing to pay taxes as an act of protest against slavery and against the Mexican-American War. This idea of a citizen's right to disobey unjust laws has also been demonstrated in such events as the Boston Tea Party, the civil rights struggles in the South during the 1960s, Gandhi's non-violent revolution in India, the fight in South Africa against apartheid, and many others.

In that tradition, 29-year-old Edward Snowden, a former American intelligence contractor, leaked classified information to the press in 2013 that revealed the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on U.S. citizens. His action led to his passport being cancelled and his being stranded in Moscow where he has remained. If he returns home, he will be charged under the 1917 Espionage Act and legally prohibited from speaking to a jury about his motivations. Oliver Stone ("Platoon," "Savages"), whose 1991 film JFK dramatized widespread doubts about the official version of the JFK assassination, is back with a hard-hitting docudrama about Edward Snowden. The film, simply called Snowden, was co-written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald and based on the books "The Snowden Files," by Luke Harding, and "Time of the Octopus," by Anatoly Kucherena.

It is basically a solid but conventional biopic that lacks the exhilarating pace of Stone's earlier films and does not provide any new information that is not available in Laura Poitras' Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour, but further opens the debate between freedom and security. The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("Looper") as the introverted whistleblower whose actions opened up a debate about balancing individual rights with the need for security. The film opens with a scene that those who have seen the documentary will be familiar with, the gathering in a Hong Kong hotel room of Snowden (Levitt), director Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo, "The Big Short"), and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zahary Quinto, "Star Trek Beyond") and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson, "Selma"). The tension is palpable as the young whistleblower shows them the proof of the illegal acts committed by U.S. intelligence in the name of national security.

The anxiety keeps building as they await the leak of the explosive material to the Manchester Guardian in England and Snowden fears he could be arrested or even killed at any time. The film then flashes ten years back to fill in Snowden's back story, including his relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley, "Allegiance") and his brief military career where his training to be a Green Beret was cut short after a fall revealed two broken legs. Though he lacks the academic background, Snowden goes to work for the CIA, hired by fictional CIA instructor Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans, "Alice Through the Looking Glass") after impressive qualifying test results. It is there that he learns of secret surveillance of foreign governments such as the hacking of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone and the gathering of data on U.S. citizens whether under suspicion of terrorism or not.

He is disturbed when Gabriel, a hang-loose fellow employee, (Ben Schnetzer) allows him an unauthorized peak at a comprehensive NSA search engine called XKeyscore, and the "optic nerve" that can monitor every phone and computer or even the screen itself. The danger is there, Snowden realized, "when everything you've ever done, every purchase you've ever made, everywhere you've ever traveled with a cell phone in your pocket is suddenly available to third parties." When Snowden asks him about FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) which requires a warrant for these types of searches, Gabe tells him FISA is simply a government-controlled rubber stamp for government surveillance.

The line is finally crossed for Snowden when he is asked to find derogatory personal data on a Pakistani banker (Bhasker Patel), and then compromise him by making a false report about his drunk driving. While credit must be given to Stone for tackling an important subject and Snowden definitely has a strong point of view, I have some reservations about the film's glorification of a man whose full story has yet to be told. It does succeed, however, in allowing a wider audience to hear Snowden's point of view about the abuses that can happen if there is too much emphasis is placed on national security at the expense of civil liberties. Snowden said, "Privacy is the fountainhead of all our rights, from which all rights are derived. It's what makes you an individual. Freedom of speech doesn't have much room if you don't have the protected space."

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Not quite fully satisfying, 25 September 2016

The question of whether the ends justify the means boils down to this: if a goal is morally important enough, is any method of achieving it acceptable? Socrates said, "It is never right to do wrong, and never right to take revenge; nor is it right to give evil, or in the case of one who has suffered some injury, to attempt to get even." The question dominates Scottish director David Mackenzie's ("Starred Up") Hell or High Water, a modern genre Western set in West Texas in which two brothers, the unemployed Toby (Chris Pine) and the ex-con Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), rob various branches of the Texas Midlands Bank in order to to meet overdue alimony payments to Toby's divorced wife Debbie (Marin Ireland).

They also want to prevent foreclosure of their deceased mother's ranch by the same chain of banks. Toby also recognizes that the oil discovered on the property influenced the bank to sell their mother a mortgage she could not repay. He calculates that if he pays off the mortgage he can then put the property in the names of his two sons, Justin (John-Paul Howard) and Randy (Christopher W. Garcia), and guarantee them a better life than he and his brother have had. The film lets us know repeatedly that the banks are the villains.

Sheriff Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a burly, good-natured but cynical officer who is near retirement has been assigned to the case. He tells his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) when he spots the Bank Manager, "That looks like a man who could foreclose on a house." After Alberto, who is part Mexican and part Native-American, tells Hamilton how the American Indians were robbed of their property, he says "Now, it's the banks who are doing the robbing." Toby later explains that he robbed banks because he's been poor his whole life. "It's like a disease passed on from one generation to the next," he says, then adds, "But not my boys."

The film is location-specific and we don't have to ask where we are. Giles Nuttgen's cinematography assures us we are in the Southwest (the film was shot in New Mexico) with dusty landscapes, oil rigs, a burning sun, billboards wanting to know if you are "In-Debt?", and decaying towns filled with abandoned homes. Writer Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the screenplay for Sicario, offers clichéd portraits of rough-hewn good ol' boy types who look like they would just as soon shoot you as say hello, a cantankerous waitress in the T-Bone Diner played by eight-eight-year-old Margaret Bowman who knows what you want to order even before you open your mouth, and a sheriff who playfully teases his partner with racial jokes, some funny, most not.

The two brother bank robbers are very different. Tanner is a trigger-happy sociopath who has just been released from serving ten years in prison, while his brother, though looking as raunchy as his brother, is shown as being meek, thoughtful, and careful. Neither are very proficient bank robbers. One time they arrived at the bank not knowing it has been closed up, another time they get there before the manager even arrives with his keys to open the banks.

After bigger banks are hit and Tanner kills two people, the inevitable chase scene takes place that leads to the desert, then to the mountains where some issues are resolved and others are not. Hell or High Water is a highly entertaining if not quite fully satisfying film that respects its characters enough to make them fully dimensional. It also has a rare social conscience. As far as whether or not the ends justify the means - you choose.

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