Category Archives: Genre: Drama

Hell or High Water (2016)

Even months before I even knew what it was about or who was in it, I had heard about some movie called Hell or High Water. I don’t think it even got a cinematic release where I’m based, but the praise was fairly universal.

And so, just a few days before it was named one of the 9 Best Picture nominees at the Oscars later this month, I finally got to watch it — and I absolutely concur: Hell or High Water a brilliant film, completely different to what I expected but an authentic, immersive experience fueled by high-octane performances, tense action and a surprising amount of depth and insight into today’s America.

I went into the film knowing virtually nothing about it except that it’s regarded as a “modern western”. Set in West Texas, the film tells the story of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who turn to robbing banks. Jeff Bridges plays a Texas Ranger hot on their heels as he tries to piece together their patterns and the reasons behind their intense crime spree.

Hell or High Water is directed by David McKenzie (Young Adam, Perfect Sense) and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), and if you’ve seen any of their past films you’ll be able to get a decent sense of the tone and pacing. Granted, westerns are not my favourite genre, and the rhythm of the film is more contemplative than frenetic, with long segments of pure dialogue.

However, there is just something magnetic about how the film has been executed. The cinematography is stunning and the depiction of the desolate landscapes and foreclosing ranches is sobering. The troubled characters come across as genuine and the sharp dialogue they get to spew out is some of the best of the year — insightful, humorous and cutting. Actually, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Hell or High Water probably explains Donald Trump’s election victory better than any other fictional film released in 2016.

The performances are wonderful. Chris Pine isn’t known for his acting, though his turn as the more level-headed of the two brothers is perhaps the best performance of his career to date. Jeff Bridges has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, though for me, the guy most deserving of recognition is Ben Foster (either as Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor), who plays the crazy, unpredictable brother. His presence is so intense and managed to keep me at the edge of my seat because he’s just so unpredictable.

Hell or High Water is also a film that shows you don’t need a huge budget or special effects to crank out spectacular action sequences filled with tension and impact. Despite a budget of just US$12 million, McKenzie makes the most of the landscape and creative ideas to infuse the action scenes with gripping thrills. Some moments actually reminded me of the action in the final season of Breaking Bad. It’s that good.

Some viewers might find the pace a little on the slow slide, though my only complaint is that there’s too much mumbling in the dialogue. I thought it was just be Jeff Bridges because we’ve heard it before, but both Pine and Foster do their fair share of it too. Apart from that, Hell or High Water is a sublime cinematic experience that ticks all the right boxes — an intriguing plot, well-rounded characters, great dialogue, compelling action and thought-provoking drama. Definitely check it out.

4.5 stars out of 5

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

We’re heading into Oscar season now, and everybody’s raving about Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Gangs of New York screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan and starring Casey Affleck, apparently the current favourite to take home the gong for Best Actor next month (he already won at the Golden Globes).

I just watched it, and man, it’s quite an experience. Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a loner working as a handyman-slash-janitor in Boston who is one day forced to return to his hometown following the passing of his brother, Joseph (Kyle Chandler). And unbeknownst to Lee, he was named in the will as the guardian of his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, who is up for Best Supporting Actor), a regular but popular 16-year-old kid into sports and girls. They used to be close until Lee left, and must now find a way to get through this tragedy together.

The film features multiple flashbacks that come without warning — there are no captions or camera effects to let you know the time frame — but the storytelling is smart enough that it doesn’t take long to figure out what time period it is in. These flashbacks are important, because they help set up the characters and let you know who they are and who they used to be, and most importantly, reveal why Lee left his hometown and became the way he is. There’s also a surprising amount of subplots and minor characters played by recognizable names, including Michelle Williams (nominated for Best Supporting Actress), Gretchen Mol, Tate Donovan and Matthew Broderick.

Manchester by the Sea is not for everyone. Regular moviegoers might find the pacing a little slow, and damn does it have moments of incredible sadness will that threaten to rip your heart out. I have a heart of stone and I was very close to tears on numerous occasions. Yet, despite all the melancholy, there is a surprisingly amount of humour and tender moments, largely fleshed out by the amazing chemistry and performances of Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges. The banter between the two feels authentic and heartfelt, even though they don’t always say what’s on their minds. Kudos also to Lonergan (up for Best Director and Best Screenplay) for being able to manage the tone of the film just right, especially by making the humour an organic part of the relationships and dialogue rather than something forced in to provide levity.

In fact, much of the film and Affleck’s masterful performance plays out in this very nuanced way. It’s a very controlled portrayal, one in which silence and facial expressions convey much more than words. It’s incredible how emotional the film is when there aren’t really any “Oscar-clip” scenes of people bawling and screaming and acting all hysterical. I haven’t seen all of the Best Actor performances yet, but Affleck definitely would be deserving — sexual harassment allegations controversy in real life notwithstanding — if he were to take home the award. Likewise for Hedges, who has come out of nowhere to snag just about every nomination there is for his performance in the film. Michelle Williams is also very good as always, but I honestly think she wasn’t in enough scenes to warrant a nomination this time around.

While acknowledging that some people would not like it (especially how it doesn’t tie things up neatly for the audience), I personally think Manchester by the Sea is a great film — about family, sorrow, regret, self-loathing and forgiveness. It’s heartbreaking but tinged with hope and littered with the small joys of life, and I love the depth and subtlety of not only the performances but also the dialogue, direction and storytelling. It’s easily one of the best dramas of the year.

4.5 stars out of 5

A Monster Calls (2016)

I’m frankly a little stunned at how poorly A Monster Calls has performed at the box office. I remember the film getting a lot of buzz early on, and the trailer made it seem like the kind of emotionally-charged fantasy drama that critics adore . And the critical response was indeed kind (86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 76% on Metacritic). With a cast featuring Jynn Erso (ie, Felicity Jones), Sigourney Weaver and Aslan’s voice (ie, Liam Neeson) and directed by Spaniard JA Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible, and the upcoming Jurassic World sequel), you would think the film would draw in big numbers. Yet, the film has yet to make back its low budget of just US$43 million.

Personally, I liked A Monster Calls a lot. It’s perhaps not as amazing or enjoyable as I hoped it would be when I first encountered the initial buzz, but it’s nonetheless an unusual and original fantasy film with wonderful visual effects, powerful performances, and a good dose of heart.

Based on the eponymous novel by Patrick Ness, the film is essentially a coming-of-age story of a young boy (played magnificently by Lewis MacDougall from Pan) who conjures a giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) as a way of dealing with his single mother’s (Felicity Jones) struggle with cancer. Sigourney Weaver plays his traditional and strict grandmother, while Toby Kebbell plays his absent father.

As you can gather from that premise, A Monster Calls is a heavy film — dealing with death, bullying, and generation gaps — and I can understand if some people found it too emotionally draining to sit through. It also has a strange structure, in which the monster appears to tell fables rendered in stylish animation. Each fable has an underlying message, but it’s vague and subject to interpretation (think The Alchemist, if you’ve read that book), which could be frustrating or enlightening, depending on your perspective.

The colour palette is greyish and the tone of the film is dark — too dark for young children — and there are some scenes that could be described as scary or certainly unsettling. I wouldn’t say it’s anywhere near as creepy, but it does have a tinge of that Pan’s Labyrinth vibe. It’s got an odd feel to it, which I like  because it’s different and puts me on edge, though it could put a lot of audiences — both young and old — off the film. And I suppose that’s where it fails, as the film is too dark and heavy for kids and also potentially too confusing for adults expecting a more straightforward story.

That said, it’s hard for me to not appreciate the movie. The creature design is awesome, with the special effects capturing the weight and size of a moving, walking tree with all the fine details you would expect. The cast is fantastic, especially young MacDougall, who I believe is destined for stardom as he’s only 14. Felicity Jones is lovely as always, and the big surprise for me was Sigourney Weaver. It’s not just her ability to pull off the British accent either — the range of emotions and restraint she puts into the grandmother character is impressive. And of course, you can never go wrong with Liam Neeson’s powerful voice. You know the tree monster is a figment of the child’s imagination, and yet it’s done well enough that it makes you wonder — or is it?

So like I said, I recognise the weaknesses of A Monster Calls as a marketable film that appeals to audiences. It’s an emotional movie experience without a lot of laughs or joy, it’s too dark and it’s too strange. And yet, I found myself engrossed and hit by all the gut punches the film through at me. I like how it paints the cruel realities of the world and life through the eyes of a child and the ways we cope with stress and tragedy. Not for everyone, but if you are a fan of fantasy and like having your thoughts provoked and heartstrings tugged, definitely give A Monster Calls a try.

4 stars out of 5

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

I worship at the altar of Ang Lee, and so I was itching to watch his latest project, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a curious title taken directly from the novel upon which the film is based. This was so even though the movie received mixed reviews and could only be watched in dreaded 3D. Lee apparently made it to be seen in not just 3D but also in 4K resolution and at a frame rate of 120 frames per second (smashing the previous record of 48 frames held by The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). Where I am, they call it “Futuristic 3D”. Sadly, only a couple of cinemas were even equipped to screen it in that format, and of course those tickets were almost impossible to get.

Anyway, Billy Lynn is Ang Lee’s attempt at a contemplative war movie set largely in the mind of the film’s titular young man (played by newcomer Joe Alwyn, who reminds me of a bigger version of Logan Lerman) as he and his unit embark on the last leg of a “hero tour” across the country that ends in a halftime show at a Thanksgiving football game in Dallas. The film does not cover a long period of real time — essentially just the day of the football game — but reveals bits and pieces about the characters and what happened in Iraq through a series of flashbacks that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s quite a fast-paced film by Ang Lee’s standards, with plenty of subplots to keep the ball rolling — from the unit’s efforts to make some money by leveraging their fame for a film deal being brokered by a quick-talking agent (Chris Tucker), to Billy’s dalliance with a cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh), to him fending off attempts by his big sister (played by Kristen Stewart) to get him to get discharged from the military.

Ang Lee has always had a knack for unearthing the depth of human emotions, capturing insights and ironies into human nature, and building authentic time periods really well — and Billy Lynn is no different. On this occasion, he focuses on the absurdity of the war, and moreover the hero worship used to propagandize US war efforts. Accordingly, the film is filled with many outrageous and humorous moments that come across as intentionally surrealistic. It’s almost a shock to see right from the beginning that the soldiers, led by Garrett Hedland, are really just a bunch of immature kids who act like a bunch of immature kids. They are sent off into the horrors of war to kill enemies, scarring them forever, and are then paraded around as national heroes packaged for the government’s agenda.

The cynicism is rife and it can be felt all throughout the movie, though credit to Lee for never fully stuffing it down our throats. Instead, we get a lot of long takes and extreme close-ups that create the sense that Billy is trapped in his own world and in his own mind as the dog and pony show rages on around him. He doesn’t want to go back to Iraq to keep fighting or be seem as a hero, and yet he feels he doesn’t have a choice but to play along. It’s the mix of these internal contradictions that fuel the film’s emotional core. I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but it sure feel like Lee is purposely juxtaposing the surrealism of the situation with the ultra-realism of the images on the screen.

Joe Alwyn is quite the revelation as Billy Lyn in his film debut, holding his own against veteran actors and never over-acting. He looks young and has this naiveté about him, but also a hidden strength amid the flood of emotions running through his mind. Not many actors would have been able to pull off so many close ups of their face. I was surprised to discover that he’s actually British and already 25 years old.

Kristen Stewart has continued her impressive run of performances after the end of that vampire franchise, reminding people again that she actually is a very good actress. Seriously: On the Road, Camp X-Ray, Clouds of Sils Maria, Still Alice — it’s time we remove the stigma. Garrett Hedlund is also impressive as the articulate dynamic leader of Bravo Squad, as is Steve Martin as the owner of the Dallas football team and Vin Diesel as a former member of Billy’s unit. Chris Tucker isn’t someone I would have cast for his role but he fits it well. There’s really no complaints about the cast.

My problem with Billy Lynn is that it never ends up being as deep and emotionally involving as I wanted it to be. The film skirts around the themes and issues but is unable to fully grasp them and sink its teeth into them, making the experience a strangely hollow one. I was interested and intrigued, and certainly never bored, though I must admit I yearned to be more engrossed. Some parts of the screenplay also came across as too polished for the characters, and for me it felt a little jarring. And I have no idea why “Futuristic 3D”, or any 3D for that matter, was applied to this film. It’s a war drama with a bunch of close ups. Why? For me, there was no need and it didn’t add anything. To the contrary, forcing the unnecessary technological advancements on audiences probably achieved the opposite effect and took them out of the film instead of pulling them in.

On the whole, Billy Lynn will likely be remembered as a middling entry in Ang Lee’s legendary filmography. While far from a failure, it is by Lee’s high standards not exactly a huge success either. It is still definitely worthy of your time, though its emotional punch and resonance fall short of the lofty bar set by his best films, and the technological innovations of the visuals tend to detract from rather than add to the viewing experience.

3.5 stars out of 5

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Say what you want about Mel Gibson, but the alcoholic antisemite nutjob sure knows how to make awesome movies!

I was somewhat wary about his latest film, Hacksaw Ridge, the remarkable true story about a Christian conscientious objector who became a hero during World War II. Given Gibson’s religious leanings, I was concerned that he was going to push that aspect of the movie down my throat, but I guess I didn’t give him enough credit because Hacksaw Ridge is one of the most epic and inspiring war movies ever made. And it’s technically an Aussie film!

Former Spider-Man Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, a young man who felt obligated like so many in his hometown to join the US military and fight the Japanese during WWII. The problem is, he’s a devout Christian who not only refuses to kill but even refuses to carry a weapon. Obviously, if he were simply sent home at this point, Hacksaw Ridge wouldn’t be much of a movie. So you can kind of guess what happens next. And yet, the battle sequences, when they finally hit, are so impactful and devastating that I became totally immersed in the film, such that it didn’t matter if I knew what the story was about or what the outcome would be.

We all know Mel loves violence, and Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t hold back one bit. Bullets shredding bodies, exploding heads, flying limbs — the carnage actually wasn’t too far off from the over-the-top massacres in Rambo (2008), except here it felt terrifyingly real. Well-developed characters you care about and good acting can make all the difference.

Garfield is really, really good as Doss, and I wouldn’t be upset if he snags one of the five Best Actor spots at the Oscars this year (he also could for Silence, though I haven’t seen it yet). It could have been easy for Doss to come across as too self-righteous and obtuse, but Garfield’s performance makes him a protagonist you want to root for. The rest of the cast is fantastic too, including Doss’s abuse, alcoholic father played by Hugo Weaving and mother played by Rachel Griffiths. Teresa Palmer puts in one of her better performances as the love interest, while Luke Bracey and Sam Worthington — two guys who haven’t been great leading men but have been solid supporting actors — are as good as they have ever been as soldiers in Doss’s unit. Vince Vaughn rounds off the stellar cast with also one of his best performances in years as their wise-cracking sergeant, providing the bulk of the film’s humour without at all coming across as jarring or out of place.

Hacksaw Ridge a brutal, harrowing film about the horrors of war, but also an uplifting one about faith and sticking to what you believe in and who you are. You really don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy this movie or be moved by it. You can actually even hate Christianity but love this movie because the themes are universal. Inspiring is inspiring, and a great movie is a great movie.

4.5 stars out of 5

PS: Apparently the film is pretty accurate too. Some timelines are shifted or stretched, but the core facts are verifiable.

La La Land (2016)

Of all the movie genres out there, I would say the musical is probably my least favourite, followed by romance. There’s just something about suddenly breaking into song and dance that takes me out of a film, and most romance flicks are done so poorly that they make me cringe with embarrassment. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part I try to avoid them. La La Land, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to director Damien Chapelle’s Whiplash, has received a lot of acclaim, and yet I still did not know what to expect because it is both a musical and a romance.

Well, I finally got around to watching it at the cinema today, and all I can say is, “Wow”. I don’t think I have ever watched a movie knowing it has received good reviews and then having it exceed my expectations this much. 

The premise is actually quite simple: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play a jazz pianist and an aspiring actress, respectively, who come to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams.  That’s pretty much all you need to know, but it is a romance after all. so you know they are going to meet and fall in love. However, it is the way that this is portrayed that makes the film so engrossing. We already know that Gosling and Stone have excellent chemistry from Crazy, Stupid, Love, and here they elevated to a whole other level. There is just something really organic about their interactions, which never feel forced or contrived. It also helps that they are both well-developed and likable characters you want to root for. 

The first half of the film is sweet, dreamy and full of energy, just like the characters pursuing their dreams and falling in love. The second half is darker and more serious as it deals with the practical realities of their lives and careers. I don’t recall a movie in recent memory that got me genuinely smiling (not because of a joke, but because of how joyful it is) and then genuinely on the verge of tears. It’s one of nose rare bittersweet films that sucked me in right from the beginning, warmed my heart, then damn near broke it. I can’t imagine how people who are have really gone to LA to pursue their dreams feel when they watch this movie. As I said, I usually don’t like romance films because they’re so poorly made. La La Land, on the other hand, nails it perfectly.

The other thing I was afraid of, the singing and dancing, surprisingly did not bother me. Part of it is because the songs are so fantastic and catchy, and part of it because the lyrics fit the emotions of the narrative so well. And part of it is because the amazing choreography and the way it was shot is so flawless. I was sold from the opening  sequence that really set the tone for the rest of the film. I had always felt that musicals would be better confined to stage plays, but the incredible long takes and creative camera angles, as well as the way Chazelle blends them in with the stunning cinematography, makes La La Land an experience built for the big screen.

Full credit must go to Gosling and stone for their performances, both of which deserve Oscar nominations if not wins. They play off each other seamlessly, from the silly banter to the serious conversations to the cute duets and dance numbers. It was almost a little annoying to see such highly attractive and fit people be able to sing and dance this well. And who the heck knew that Gosling was such a good piano player?

Chazelle has also made himself a favorite for Best Director and Best Screenplay by proving that Whiplash was no fluke. La La Land is so different from Whiplash, and yet both films exude the same type of self-assured confidence and controlled pacing. I can’t wait to see what Chazelle comes up with next. 

I’ve heard some people call La La Land a love letter to Los Angeles, and I guess you could construe it that way. I just think it’s a brilliant, funny, sweet, heart-felt movie from start to finish. There were a couple of decisions I perceive as minor missteps, though on the whole, there’s really nothing to dampen how I feel about the movie. Perhaps it’s just the dreamer in me talking, but I just can’t believe how much I love it.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: I literally walked out of the cinema after watching La La land to discover that it had won a record seven awards at the Golden Globes with a clean sweep. I’m not usually one for hyperboles, but it’s well-deserved. I still have a few films left to watch that could potentially knock it off its perch, but as of now, La La Land is the best 2016 release I’ve seen.

Beasts of No Nation (2015)

Okay, so I’m blaming Beasts of No Nation as the reason why my Best Of and Worst Of lists of 2015 has STILL not been published. I held off on doing the lists because, based on the word of mouth and buzz I had been hearing, I thought there was a possibility it might end up on my Best Of list. And then I watched it but never found time to review it properly. And before I knew it, December 31, 2016. So before it’s too late, here goes.

Beasts of No Nation is a harrowing coming-of-age film about a young boy (Abraham Attah, who is going to be in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming) who becomes a child soldier in Africa, fighting under a terrifying warlord played by the brilliant Idris Elba. It’s written, shot, and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the genius behind the first season of True Detective, and you can see shades of his style and flavour all throughout this film.

It’s a traumatic and uncompromising film in many respects, and yet comes across as authentic. Idris Elba, in particular, is spectacular, really lifting the film into another stratosphere. It was a total-package performance, from the look to the voice (including accent) to the subtle expressions and body movements. I knew I was watching Idris Elba on the screen but the character he was playing on the screen genuinely made me uneasy and afraid.

That said, the film does follow quite a predictable progression and lacks the gut-punches that would have made it a much more memorable film. I’m doing this review a few months after I watched it, and yet there aren’t many scenes or moments that stand out. I feel like the first half of it, when the boy is being initiated into the militia, comes across as more gripping. The expected fall from grace in the second half wasn’t quite as convincing.

Beasts of No Nation is a very good film, a hard-hitting, well-shot and well-acted movie. There was talk that the film, or at least Idris Elba of receiving an Oscar nomination, but when it/he didn’t (he did get a Golden Globe nomination), there were suggestions that it was slighted because it was released globally on Netflix. I don’t quite agree with that assessment. As much as I liked the film, it didn’t wow me or floor me like I thought it might, and for me there were easily better films and performances that year.

3.75 stars out of 5

Sully (2016)

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Clint Eastwood. Tom Hanks. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

And seriously, nothing did in Sully, the true story of the US Airways Flight 1549 “crash” in 2009. I’m assuming there are people out there who might not know what happened (you never know), so I’ll just leave it at that.

As the title suggests, the film revolves around the flight’s captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, played by reliable Tom Hanks.  The film is not just a CGI-filled re-enactment of a famous event, but also looks into who Sully is as a person, how he became that person, and the fall out from the incident that changed his life and that of 154 others on board the fateful plane.

Other notable members of the cast include Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles, Sully’s co-pilot, Laura Linney as Sully’s wife, and Anna Gunn (from Breaking Bad) as a member of the crash investigation team. Special mention also goes to Holt McCallany as Mike Cleary, a particularly antagonistic member of the crash investigators who stands out, not as a “bad guy” but as someone who adds a lot of the tension to the drama.

I knew, in the safe hands of Eastwood and Hanks, that Sully was likely going to be a very good movie. Not surprisingly, it absolutely is, with fantastic performances, visually thrilling sequences, and heartfelt drama, but without going overboard in terms of painting Sully as some kind of saintly hero. I was surprised, however, by the structure, progression, and focus of the film—in a good way.

While the incident indeed lies at its heart, the film does not simply set it up chronologically as you would expect, filling up time and dragging it out before a climatic finish. Instead, it cleverly utilises a series of flashbacks and other cinematic devices to gradually build things up a very gratifying conclusion. It was a little slower than I would have liked at the beginning, but Eastwood’s steady-paced storytelling soon began to take effect, and by about the midway mark I was fully engrossed in the story.

The crash itself was portrayed splendidly. I’ll admit that the CGI was not perfect, but even though everyone knew what would happen, Eastwood still managed to create a gripping sequence that had me at the edge of my seat. That’s masterful filmmaking.

The emotional impact of Sully might not be as intense as some of my favourite Eastwood films such as Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Hereafter, and Letters from Iwo Jima, but keep in mind this is also not the same kind of movie. Sully is about a great man and the hope and inspiration he represents, and in my view it’s better and more effective in generating these feelings than Invictus. Not sure if the movie is going to get much love from Oscar voters this year, but I think it could very well be Eastwood’s best film since 2008’s Gran Torino.

4 stars out of 5

Snowden (2016)

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I was really looking forward to Snowden for a couple of reasons. First, because it’s directed by Oliver Stone. Secondly, because I’m fascinated by Edward Snowden’s story and feel like I already know a lot about it, and was interested to see what kind of take Stone would have on the man and his story.

Oliver Stone doesn’t always make great movies, but he’s a director who I will always watch because of his track record. And for the record, I quite liked his last movie, Savages. When it comes to grit and drama, there are few American directors in his class.

The verdict? Snowden is a very solid movie, but sadly it’s nowhere near a great one. I might even call it a little disappointing, if only because I was expecting a lot more.

For those who have been living under a rock for the last three years, Snowden is a biographical film about former CIA and NSA contractor Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who shocked the world in 2013 when he stole and gave to the media classified documents exposing that the US government is conducting illegal mass surveillance on not just foreign countries but their own people.

The film doesn’t tell us much about Snowden’s birth or family, instead choosing to follow him starting from his early years in the military. I don’t know how accurate the film is when it comes to certain details about Snowden’s character and history, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Stone had made up a lot of stuff (his track record is a little iffy).

In this film, Snowden is portrayed as a surprisingly normal guy (I was thinking socially awkward, reclusive, arrogant). Well, apart from the fact he’s a tech genius. He starts off as a patriot with relatively conservative political leanings, and ends up as a liberal hero some call a traitor to his own country. And make no mistake, Snowden is presented as a hero in the film. I would have preferred some ambiguity because these are clearly some very complex issues here, but it’s obvious which side Stone stands on. That said, I do appreciate that Snowden’s heroic image isn’t stuffed down our throats all the way (at least not until the end).

For what is supposedly a “political thriller”, Snowden is relatively tame in terms of action, and there’s also a lot less suspense than I had anticipated. The film is never boring, but I expected the film to spend more time on how he stole the classified information and how he escaped from Hong Kong to Russia. The latter, in particular, was dealt with rather quickly and without any drama, which I felt was a missed opportunity.

What the film does well is in portraying the relationship between Snowden and his long-term girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley. It’s a central part of his life and the source of most of the film’s drama. The two of them have surprisingly good chemistry and their performances are elevated as a result.

Speaking of performances, Gordon-Levitt is phenomenal as Snowden. I was one of the many who raised an eyebrow when I heard he was cast, given the seeming lack of physical resemblance. Seriously, I don’t know how they did it, but he is totally Snowden in the film. Apart from getting the voice right, he gets the look right too. There were a few shots, especially in the Hong Kong hotel, where the similarities were stunning. Not sure if Gordon-Levitt will get an Oscar nomination for the performance because the film hasn’t been received that well, though I would certainly not be annoyed if he received the honour.

Apart from Gordon-Levitt and Woodley, the rest of the cast is solid too. Chameleon Melissa Leo plays documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, while Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson play the journalists who break Snowden’s story. Timothy Oliphant plays a CIA agent, Scott Eastwood is an NSA supervisor, and Ben Schnetzer, the apprentice wizard in Warcraft, portrays a tech wizard this time. The one casting choice I didn’t like was Nicholas Cage, in a small role as a teacher in the CIA, because he’s Nicholas Cage, and it’s hard for me to take anything seriously when I see his face these days. I was also not a fan of Snowden’s CIA mentor, played by Rhys Ifans. The performance itself was fine, but the character was too much of a caricature.

And I don’t know if this counts as a spoiler—it’s not a plot spoiler—but skip this paragraph if you don’t want to find out. Anyway, I don’t like how the real Edward Snowden makes an appearance at the end of the film. Throughout the entire movie he is Joseph Gordon Levitt, but this changes in the final minutes, first with protesters holding photos of the real Snowden, and then the appearance of Snowden himself. It takes you out of the reality the film had built over the last two hours. More importantly, it also reminds you that Gordon-Levitt doesn’t actually look or sound as much like Snowden as you thought he did during the film.

In sum, Snowden gets just a moderately above-average grade from me. I had expected an intelligent, exciting thriller (think Argo) that tackles Snowden’s actions and the consequences of his actions—from the both sides of the debate. Instead, I got a milder, one-sided version that failed to make the most of its opportunities.

3.25 stars out of 5

Dope (2015)

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I’m certain I’m the first person in the world to come up with this original line: Dope is a dope movie.

Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa (Talk to Me, Brown Sugar) and starring up-and-comers Shameik Moore, Kiersey Clemons and Zoe Kravitz, Dope is a fresh, smart and energetic coming-of-age comedy about a clever high school senior named Malcolm (Moore) who lives in a run-down part of Los Angeles. While attending a party, Malcolm and his friends somehow get mixed up shootout involving drugs, kicking off a wild adventure full of laughs, wackiness and insights into modern black culture and racial and social politics.

I had a blast with Dope despite going into it thinking that it wasn’t going to be my kind of movie. Famuyiwa does a fantastic job of creating characters we can root for and infusing the narrative with a sense of originality mixed with a retro feel.  The beginning scenes of the film made me think that it was set in the 80s — Malcolm has a retro haircut and listens to retro music and wears retro clothing — but soon you realise that he’s just a geek who appreciates the good stuff.

There’s a sense of craziness  and mayhem to everything that happens in the film, though Famuyiwa never loses control of the material as the story shifts seamlessly between comedy to drama to crime to action to romance. There’s just never a dull moment in this entertaining movie. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and twists and turns in the plot so you never know what is coming next, though things can get a little complicated towards the end if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on.

The soundtrack and the performances are kick-ass. Moore delivers a star-turning performance as the likable protagonist, while Kiersey Clemons is also a standout as his tomboyish friend. She’s set to be in the Flatliners remake next year and DC’s The Flash the year after.

All in all, Dope is intelligent, fun and refreshing. While it’s not without problems, I applaud its ambition, confidence and cheerful, optimistic vibe. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it one of my favourite movies of the year, but it absolutely is one of my biggest pleasant surprises.

4 stars out of 5

PS: I didn’t know this before, but the film is produced by Forest Whitaker and executive produced by Pharrell and Diddy.