Tag Archives: Shailene Woodley

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

Movie Review: Insurgent (2015)

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Let’s just be upfront about this. The Divergent series is to the Hunger Games what Percy Jackson is to Harry Potter. It’ll always be the less attractive, less appealing, shittier cousin.

It might be unfair to Shailene Woodley, who might be every bit as capable as Jennifer Lawrence in playing a strong, albeit unwilling action hero, though it remains unavoidable that the two franchises will always be compared to each other.

And accordingly, Insurgent compares unfavourably to Catching Fire as the second instalment of a post-apocalyptic teen franchise. It’s not badly made, but if you didn’t enjoy the first film all that much — put me in that category — then it’s unlikely this one will change your mind about the series.

One thing the film does well is in reminding us of the story, or explaining it to newcomers, using a short voiceover that more or less summarises the premise — ie, the future world, following an extinction event of sorts, splits humans into specific groups because it helps maintain peace. Everyone is put into either Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), or Erudite (the intelligent), or they are Factionless and ostracised from the community.

Woodley plays Tris, a teenage girl who happens to be Divergent, meaning she has elements of multiple groups and therefore can’t be squeezed into any. Big deal, right? Well apparently, yes, because evildoers led by Kate Winslet want to hunt her down and kill her.

All this is explained efficiently at the beginning so there’s not a lot of confusion. From there, Tris, her loverboy (Theo James), brother (Ansel Elgort, incidentally her loverboy from The Fault in Our Stars and Mr Fantastic (Miles Teller) find themselves on the run and scheming to defeat Winslet and her goons.

They meet people like Octavia Spencer and discover that James’s mother is Naomi Watts, but the whole focus of the film is about a secret box that came out of nowhere but is supposed to hold some really important info. And guess who is the only person that can open it? Yeah, you guessed it. There’s more of those virtual reality trials they had from the first film, and you can pretty much guess what happens in the end.

The problem I had with Divergent was that I couldn’t buy the concept of a society where everyone can be categorised by a single trait. With Insurgent, it’s more about not buying this whole “box” business. It seems like something conjured up to help create a point for the story to continue, and it makes the narrative predictable and cliched.

I don’t want to make it sound like Insurgent is a bad movie, because it’s not. It’s decently made with enough passion and quality performances from quality actors. But for me it was just such a “meh”‘experience. I was only mildly interested and entertained, and frankly, it just didn’t do much for me at all. I have doubts the next part in the series, Allegiant, annoyingly split into two parts as well, will be able to change that.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: White Bird in a Blizzard (2014)

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There was something about White Bird in a Blizzard that drew me to it right from the beginning. Perhaps it’s the typically brilliant Shailene Woodley, who plays a teenager trying to come to terms with her mother’s sudden disappearance. Perhaps it’s the sultry Eva Green, who delivers a wickedly delicious performance as Woodley’s mother in extended flashbacks and dream sequences. Or maybe it’s just the overall feel crafted by writer and director Gregg Araki, who adapted the screenplay from the novel of the same name by Laura Kasischke. Whatever it is, White Bird in a Blizzard is a strange experience — not exactly satisfying, but definitely captivating.

Part mystery-thriller, part suburban drama, part coming-of-age/sexual awakening, White Bird in a Blizzard is set in 1988, when 17-year-old Kat Connors (Woodley) returns home one day to discover that her mother Eve (Green) has disappeared without a trace, leaving her wimpy father Brock (Christopher Meloni) in a depressed daze.

Eve had been acting increasingly bizarrely leading up to her disappearance, clearly unhappy with her marriage and life, and perhaps even jealous of her daughter’s blossoming sexuality and new dim-witted boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez). Did Eve simply run off to start a new life, why did someone kill her? And why does Phil seem to be hiding something? To make things more complicated, Kat begins to develop an interest in the hot detective (Thomas Jane) investigating her mother’s case.

I’m not usually into suburban dramas per se, though this one had a quirky, slightly surreal edge to it that made it different and interesting. It reminded me a little of that dreamy 80s TV show, Twin Peaks, where everything and everyone’s just a little off, and the mood is darkly comedic but also uncomfortable.

Stories like this have been done many times before, but never quite like this. Woodley is wonderful as always, even though her character might not be entirely likable or convincing. Eva Green is so funny in this. From her snappy weirdness to the death stares she gives to Meloni, Green had me smirking and giggling despite understanding the genuine sadness she must feel from her uneventful existence.

While it’s not a superior drama, mystery- thriller, comedy or coming-of-age film, White Bird in a Blizzard is a fleetingly enjoyable experience. You might not fully believe in it or its characters, but you’ll have a hard time not feeling compelled to keep watching.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

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First the book, and now the movie. I’m not big on romance, but I consider myself a fan of John Green’s young adult cancer romance novel The Fault in Our Stars. Last week I finally got a chance to see the movie adaptation, directed by Josh Boone (set to direct a new adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand) and starring rising stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as a pair of cancer-ridden teen lovers.

I went in expecting a tear-jerker and still came close to discharging some saltwater from my eyes, which is no mean feat considering I almost never cry at movies and I knew exactly what was going to happen. I don’t have a problem with films that intend to manipulate viewers into crying as long as it is done in a non-exploitative way, and I think The Fault in Our Stars achieves, and if not comes very close to achieving, that objective. The emotions come not just from the realization that young lovers will inevitably be torn apart, but arise organically from the fact that we care about them and the special relationship that they have.

Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a smart, uncannily self-aware teen living with terminal thyroid cancer. She’s already supposed to be dead, but a fictional experimental drug has miraculously extended her life for an indeterminate period of time. At one of the dreaded support groups her parents send her to, she meets Augustus Waters (Elgort) a former basketball star who lost a leg to osteosarcoma. The attraction is instant, and the two begin a sweet but doomed courtship that will take them from Indiana to halfway across the world.

I thought the book was awesome, and the film does a fantastic job of staying true to its source material. Much of the dialogue is there, the key scenes are all there, and some of Hazel’s inner thoughts are projected to audiences via well-timed but not overused voice-overs. There were some small changes, such as the cutting out of some minor characters and a clever (and arguably more effective) tweak to the ending, but for the most part the adaptation is as smooth as fans of the book could have hoped for, and kudos must go to Josh Boone in creating a tone that captures the essence of John Green’s voice and style.

Admittedly, it is difficult to transfer the love story from the page to the screen without losing something, and if one must nitpick it would have to be the loss of some of the sardonic wit of the novel. Much of it is there through the dialogue and interactions between the characters, but I guess it was too difficult to squeeze in all of Hazel’s astute observations and thoughts about the world and the people around her. But hey, I get that the focus is on the love story, and you can’t blame the filmmakers for sacrificing a bit of humour to make more time for tears.

The casting is also a bit of a mixed bag. Shailene Woodley is magnificent. I don’t know if it’s an Oscar-worthy performance, but in my humble opinion it’s as good as performance Jennifer Lawrence has given. Woodley drives the film from start to finish. She’s sympathetic but not pitiful, charming but not obnoxious, and she brings out the best of the qualities of Hazel as the protagonist.

Ansel Elgort, who incidentally played Woodley’s brother in Divergent, is solid but occasionally struggles as the love of Hazel’s life, Augustus Waters. It’s not an easy role to pull off because he needs to be attractive, witty, considerate and caring, and Elgort achieves that for the most part, though at times he fails express his emotions in pivotal scenes, opting instead for an awkward, supposed-to-be-but-not-really charming smile. But still, he’s better than Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner.

The supporting cast had some big names but not quite what I expected. Hazel’s mother is played by a rail-thin Laura Dern, who despite her excellent performance was not the actress I had envisioned in the role. Neither was Hazel’s father, played by True Blood’s Sam Trammell, who is given less to do and doesn’t deliver any more than he is given. The strangest casting choice was that of Willem Dafoe as the writer Hazel worships, Peter van Houten. Having read the book, I know the character is supposed to be fat and dishevelled, but Dafoe (despite trying to dress down) is neither, and it was hard reconciling the two in my mind. Even had I not read the book beforehand I probably would have expected more from the performance.

As it turned out, it was the lesser-known Nat Wolff (who appeared in Boone’s first film, Stuck in Love) who steals the show from the other supporting characters in his role as Augustus’s best male friend Isaac, who has already lost one eye to cancer and is about to lose the other. He was exactly how I pictured the character to be and comes across as both affable and genuine.

I can only imagine how my thoughts about the film would differ had I not read the book first, though I imagine it would still be highly positive. This is an easy film to like, with likable characters, a witty and thoughtful take on the bleak subject matter of cancer, and of course plenty of heartbreak mixed in with splashes of beauty and joy. It might still be a teen romance, but it’s a heartfelt and powerful one that does its best to avoid the cliches of the genre with rare wisdom and warmth.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Divergent (2014)

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Divergent is, by all accounts, the next big thing after Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games. It’s based on the bestselling sci-fi novel series by American author Veronica Roth and stars one of the hottest up-and-coming stars in Hollywood, Shailene Woodley. The film was a commercial success and a sequel, Insurgent, is slated for a March 2015 release.

So is Divergent the real deal, or is it yet another pretender in the vein of The Golden Compass, Percy Jackson, I Am Number Four and Vampire Academy?

To be honest, I don’t think I can make my mind up — yet. It has a fairly typical post-apocalyptic premise, in which the world — as far as we know — is essentially decimated but there are elements of extremely advanced technology, kind of like The Hunger Games.

What sets the premise apart is the introduction of the idea that all human beings can be categorized into one of five factions: Abnegation the selfless, Amity the peaceful, Candor the honest, Dauntless the brave, and Erudite the intelligent. When someone turns 16 they are given a personality test which tells them the faction they belong to, though they are still given the freedom to choose whatever they want. Once you choose a faction, however, you are there for life.

Say what? I hear you say. Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense to me either. First of all, how can humans only have five personality traits? Second of all, how can a person be deemed to have only one of the traits? Thirdly, what is the point of the test if you get to choose whatever you want anyway? And lastly, how does any of this help create a more peaceful, more organized and more advanced society?

Anyway, our teenage protagonist, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort, who coincidentally plays Shailene’s lover in The Fault in Our Stars — awkward!) reach that age whenthey have to undergo the test and pick their faction. But of course there’s a twist — we find out that Beatrice is “special”! She joins a faction regardless, and the first half of the film revolves predominantly around her group training to become a badass, and the budding romance she develops with a team leader (Theo James). Later on, stuff inevitably happens, leading to a climactic showdown in which — you guessed it — only Beatrice can save the world.

When I put it that way, Divergent sounds like a pretty stereotypical teen/sci-fi flick, not all that different from The Hunger Games or Ender’s Game, both of which have similar plot points and progression.

Having said that, I still found Divergent to be a surprisingly entertaining and engaging experience (especially during the tense and exciting training sequences). That can happen when you have an $85 million budget and a first-class production team and cast.

Neil Berger is a solid commercial directors proven track record in making test intelligent thrillers such as The Illusionist and Limitless. And regardless of the future of this franchise, Shailene Woodley is poised for big things. Despite her age (22), she has a remarkable screen presence, which she uses to carry the film from start to finish, and she also has this face that’s not immediately attractive or appealing, but somehow grows on you as her personality starts to shine through. Most young actresses would be thrilled to be called the poor (wo)man’s Jennifer Lawrence, but in Woodley’s case it would be an insult. She’s for real. (And while we’re at it, Beatrice Prior is a good enough character to not be called a poor (wo)man’s Katniss Everdeen either.)

English actor Theo James won’t be getting hype like the Twilight boys because his character is fairly lame and secondary, but he does what he can with limited material to work with, and Zoe Kravitz, Lenny’s girl, adds some sass as Beatrice’s closest friend. Ansel Elgort is decent, but he doesn’t have much screen time. The rest of the supporting cast is A-list, with Kate Winslet playing a key government official, Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn as the parents, and Jai Courtney as a faction member, with minor characters portrayed by the likes of Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson and Mekhi Phifer.

The problem with the film lies ultimately in whether you can stomach the illogical premise. Most sci-fi films have plot holes and things that don’t necessarily make sense, but in many cases audiences can look past the flaws as long as the film works within the confines of its own rules. The Hunger Games, for example, had several issues with logic, though nothing stood out to the point where the whole film was at risk of collapsing. With Divergent the situation is a lot more iffy. We get what the premise is trying to say about free will and how people tend to be judged and grouped by appearances or a single characteristic, but when it fails what I like to call the “smell test” you have to ask yourself whether you can accept anything else in the story.

I haven’t read the book, but perhaps the author did a better job of fudging the premise than the movie did. In any case, given that there’s more to come in the story that might provide some much-needed explanations and context, I’m going to withhold my judgment for the time being. In reviewing Divergent as a standalone movie, however, I admit the premise did bother me, perhaps not to the extent that it ruined the film, but it certainly tempered what would have otherwise been a solid first entry to a series capable of competing with the Hunger Games franchise.

3 stars out of 5