Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Star Wars Fan Speculation Post, 2017

It's been a while since I've indulged myself by geeking out over "Star Wars," currently one of the few major film franchises that I retain many geeky feelings for. So I'm going to get some things out of my system with this post, throwing out theories, ideas, hopes, and wild speculation about what might happen in "Episode VIII" and "Episode IX." Spoilers ahead for everything in the series so far.

While it would be nice if Rey didn't turn out to be related to anyone special, or who we've already met, setting up her origins as a mystery the way the filmmakers have suggests otherwise. So if I had to pick, I'd pick Emperor Palpatine as her father or grandfather, who had to secret away the existence of an heir. It would make for a nice parallel to Kylo Ren, who was supposed to be the successor of the champions of the Light Side of the Force but turned dark, and echo Luke Skywalker's reckoning with being the son of Vader. Ian McDiarmid's portrayal of Palpatine was also my favorite part of the prequels, so getting him back into the mix in some capacity would be great. Speaking of Kylo Ren, I'm looking forward to his continuing training, set in counterpoint to Rey's being a big part of the next film.

Now, one big element of the original "Star Wars" films that I haven't seen brought back so far is the romance. I don't want Rey to end up in a love triangle with Finn and Poe Dameron, but I would like to see some sort of love story in these movies. It would make the most sense to center one around Finn, who is striking out on his own and learning to be an individual with his own wants and needs. While Rey is off training with Luke, he should be off having his own adventures, maybe with Poe, maybe with whoever Kelly Marie Tran is playing. Of course, this assumes that "Episode VIII" is going to have the same structure as "Empire Strikes Back," when it easily might not. We don't really need to see all the Jedi training again, so wouldn't be surprised if the story skips a good chuck of it, and reunites Rey with her friends quicker.

If Rey is going to be a romantic lead, I could see her being tempted by Kylo Ren, who will probably be ordered as part of his training to either defeat or seduce her, and that might lead to him being brought back to the Light Side by her good influence. Of course, there are some tricky implications to doing that kind of story, but handled right it could be a really fun watch. I'm sure that Kylo Ren and Luke's explanations of what happened in the past won't be the same. There's probably a big lie or a big trauma in there somewhere. And of course Kylo Ren is going to kill, or at least severely incapacitate Luke Skywalker. It's part of the formula to remove all of your hero's support systems before the finale. I wouldn't be surprised if that's the end of "Episode VIII."

Still, as interested as I am in what happened to the Solo and Skywalker families before "The Force Awakens," I hope it's only a very small part of the films going forward. As much as I enjoy Mark Hamill, the last thing I want is for the regrets of Old Man Skywalker to end up overshadowing Rey or Kylo Ren's stories. "Star Wars" is not "The Karate Kid," and Luke Skywalker should have exactly as much narrative emphasis as Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi did, no more. And here's hoping that they don't bring back Lando or Wedge or Lobot or whoever else might be in line for a cameo. I'm hoping that the filmmakers got the majority of the nostalgia out of their systems with "The Force Awakens" and "Rogue One" so that the series can start really moving forward.

And finally, a few miscellaneous things. Yes to more droids, more Chewbacca, and more alien creatures. Yes, to more different planets. Yes to new villains. However, I hope that they do something more interesting with Snoke and Phasma. And I hope that we get some new ships to love as much as we all love the Falcon. I was always a sucker for the ships.
---

Monday, March 20, 2017

"American Honey" is Golden

We first meet eighteen year-old Star (Sasha Lane) in rural Oklahoma, dumpster diving at a run-down K-mart, with a pair of small children in tow. Later, we learn that the children are not related to her, though she looks after them, and her home life is a miserable, untenable situation. It's time for Star to leave. So she falls in with a band of itinerant youngsters who travel by van throughout the American Midwest, hawking overpriced magazine subscriptions for their team leader Krystal (Riley Keough). Star is initially recruited by Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who flirts with her and trains her in the art of conning and grifting her way to success.

"American Honey" is the first film from Andrea Arnold set outside the UK, and it retains all the raw style and lyrical realism of her prior films. You won't find many beauty shots of the landscape, but there are plenty of intimate moments in overcrowded vans, evocative glimpses of life on the road, and a transcendant sing-along or two. The cast is a strong mix of professional actors and non-professionals. Arnold reportedly cast newcomer Sasha Lane after running across her on a vacation, and other members of the magazine crew were found in parking lots and construction sites. Together, they form an eclectic, lively band of outcasts and misfits, always causing some kind of commotion, always living on the brink. They spontaneously start dancing in the K-mart where Star first sees them, and the ending revolves around a celebratory bonfire that the kids take turns dancing and leaping over. It's easy to see what draws Star into their circle.

And through Star's journey with the crew, Arnold explores the American landscape like so many of the great foreign filmmkers before her. Despite our heroine revealing very little about her background, we learn plenty about Star as she grapples with new circumstances and new choices. She resists lying to people or tricking them into sales. She's very good at getting herself out of bad situations, and proves scrappy enough to survive on her own. However, she isn't quite worldly enough to understand that having a connection with Jake doesn't mean she's not also one of his marks. Sasha Lane wordlessly conveys so much, giving Star a lot of charisma and raw intelligence. She's also, notably, one of the only cast members of color in a sea of white faces. This is also my favorite performance from Shia LaBeouf, whose recent bounts of oddity mesh perfectly with the tone of "American Honey," where to be odd and out of place may be synonymous with being free.

Really, though, it's America that is the star of the film, specifically all the depressed, abjectly poor, yet hopeful parts of it that rarely find their way to the big screen. Though nature occasionally makes itself known, the film spends the bulk of its time in motels, parking lots, and run-down apartments. I'm tempted to liken Arnold's work here to Harmony Korine's earlier grotesqueries, but Arnold's work is more celebratory, more sympathetic and humane. She lets Star call out the hypocrisy of a wealthy suburbanite, enjoy the comaraderie of her fellow fringe-dwellers, and have her moments of triumph and joy. Star has real agency over her life, which is vital. And while some have complained of the film's two-and-a-half hour length, I enjoyed all of Star's various misadventures, and the chance to really become immersed in her world. If the film is overlong, at least it's ambitious and entertaining all the way through.

There's a strong temptation to want to read political messages into the film, which is essentially about a group of forgotten, con-artist kids with no safety net and no prospects trying to find their way in crumbling middle America. However, the film is more interested in conveying an experience than a message, and tends to treat the social ills it encounters very matter-of-factly. It's hardest on the individual characters and the choices that they make. For instance, "American Honey" is bookened by two encounters that Star has with broken families, which highlight her best and worst impulses. And it leaves her with a long ways left to go on her journey.

But I leave you to discover that for yourselves.
---

Saturday, March 18, 2017

2017 Films I'm Anticipating, Part II

This is a continuation of my list of the 2017 films I'm anticipating most. This post is for the smaller films, many of which don't have distribution yet, release dates, or even titles. There's a good chance that a few won't be released in 2017 at all. However, I remain an optimist, and I'm spotlighting all of them regardless. Films are listed alphabetically below.
"Annihilation" - This is Alex Garland's follow-up to "Ex Machina," which imagines an all-female team of scientists making an expedition into a mysterious environmental disaster zone. I'm trying to avoid as much information as I can about the particulars of the plot, but the similarities to Tarkovsky's "Stalker" stand out to me. Natalie Portman will be playing the lead, and Garland is both writing and directing. The first images from the film have been floating around online since last years, and they look fantastic.

"Dark River" - It's been difficult to find much information about the next movie from Clio Barnard, a UK drama starring Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley. However, it's been three years since "The Selfish Giant," and I'm itching to see more work from this director. Even without Barnard at the helm, though, I'd watch Ruth Wilson in just about anything. From the synopsis, "Dark River" is firmly in the category of films about small town mysteries, family estrangements, and uncovering murky secrets from the past.

"Free Fire" - Now this is my idea of an action comedy. Ben Wheatley has gathered a tremendous cast, including Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, and Cillian Murphy, to play a bunch of despicable characters, who spend the entire movie running around a warehouse trying to kill each other. Now, I've never seen Ben Wheatley do a full blown comedy before, but the trailer this gives me great confidence that he can pull it off. Unlike most of the other entries on the list, we'll be seeing this one in theaters very soon.

"Mute" - It's always nice when a talented director gets to tackle one of their dream projects. Duncan Jones, coming off of "Warcraft," is making his long-gestating science-fiction mystery film "Mute" for Netflix. Jones has described it as a spiritual sequel to his 2009 film, "Moon," which is very exciting. I'm always looking out for more of these small scale, twisty science fiction films. Netflix will also be distributing genre films "Bright," "Death Note," and "Okja" next year. I'm interested in all of them to varying degrees.

"The Death of Stalin" - After leaving "Veep," Armando Iannucci has returned to the movies. Based on the acclaimed French graphic novel by Fabien Nury, Iannucci's next political satire will look at the death of Joseph Stalin, and the Soviet bureaucrats who jockeyed for power in the aftermath. The cast in great, and includes Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Timothy Dalton, and Olga Kurylenko. This will also be the first film that Iannucci has directed himself since the excellent "In the Loop," way back in 2009.

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" - Martin McDonagh has had an interesting career, and I often forget that he's only made two films so far. His latest will star Frances McDormand as a mother who goes to war against her local police force after the death of her daughter. McDonagh's specialty is pitch black comedies, and I'm expecting that this will be one too. I'm interested to see how he'll handle a story set in the Midwest, however, as his work set in the U.S. has been uneven so far.

"Mother!" - For a long time, the details of Darren Aronofsky newest film have been sparse. We know that it stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Barden as a couple who have to deal with unwanted guests. We know that Domhnall Gleeson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris, and Brian Gleeson ae also in the mix. There have been hints that it's actually a home-invasion thriller. It's not a lot to go on, but the bottom line is that it's a new Darren Aronofsky film, all the right people are involved, and I'm seeing it no matter what.

Untitled Alfonso Cuaron Film - I vacillated between this one and the Untitled Paul Thomas Anderson film with Daniel Day Lewis. Frankly, Cuaron wins out because I just like his work more. And after "Gravity" took up such a huge amount of his time, Cuaron films have been rarer birds. The existence of this project wasn't even confirmed until last November, when reports surfaced that members of the crew were robbed during filming in Mexico City. All we know is that it's a Mexican domestic drama, set in the 1970s.

Untitled Kathryn Bigelow Film - After being courted by every big action franchise in town, and flirting with a Bowe Bergdahl biopic, Kathryn Bigelow finally has her follow-up to "Zero Dark Thirty" in the works. Based on the 1967 Detroit riots, with an intriguing cast lead by John Boyega, this will be the third collaboration between Bigelow and writer Mark Boal. The pic is timely, ambitious, and sure to be another controversial awards contender. In short, it's everything I've come to expect from a Bigelow film in recent years.


---

Thursday, March 16, 2017

2017 Films I'm Anticipating, Part I

It's that time again! I write these posts every year a little bit later than everyone else, in order to get a better sense of what the year's film landscape is going to look like. There are never guarantees about what's going to make it to screens by the end of the year and what isn't. And as usual, most of my picks are concentrated toward the later part of the year, where the release schedule is very much a work in progress.

As always, I will split this feature up into two posts, one for the mainstream, would-be blockbusters released by big studios, that everybody hears about, and one for the art house fare that may break through to the mainstream eventually, but only the cinephiles anticipate this far in advance. Big releases go first. Films are ordered below by release date. There are also a couple of titles that were delayed from 2016, like James Ponsoldt's "The Circle," which I'll leave off the new lists.

"Ghost in the Shell" - I have a heap of concerns about what director Rupert Sanders is planning here, but it's very exciting to see a franchise that I've been a fan of for years get a big budget adaptation. From what we've seen in the promotional materials so far, several iconic scenes from the anime will be recreated in live action. And considering how many times I've watched that leaked clip of the film's opening, set to a new version of Kenji Kawai's "Birth of a Cyborg," those recreations alone may be worth the price of admission.

"War for the Planet of the Apes" - The unlikely success of the revitalized "Apes" series has me excited to see Caesar and the apes in full blown warfare against the human race at last. Matt Reeves is returning, along with writer Matt Bomback, but we'll be getting a new human villain played by Woody Harrelson. I suspect that this won't be the last of this series of "Apes" films if it performs well, and there is so much that could still be done with the concept that I wouldn't mind them going on for as long as the creators want.

"Dunkirk" - Any new Christopher Nolan movie is cause for excitement, especially one starring Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy, among others. As much as I like Nolan's genre films, it's good to see him striking out in a different direction and trying something new. It's also good to see Warner Bros. throwing their full support behind the project. I can't think of another epic war film with such a prominent summer release since Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" twenty years ago. I'm crossing my fingers that this pays off big.

"Blade Runner 2049" - Denis Villeneauve's "Arrival" was on this list last year, when it was still called "The Story of Your Life." At the time I wasn't entirely sold on the notion of returning to the "Blade Runner" universe, but now it's shaping up to be one of the promising science-fiction films of the year. Ryan Gosling is set to star, with Harrison Ford returning, and Ridley Scott thankfully only onboard in a producer role. Plot details remain scarce, but this is clearly the biggest project that Villeneauve has been involved in yet.

"Thor: Ragnarok" - The "Thor" movies have been among the weakest installments of the MCU films to date. However, "Ragnarok" looks like it may be the best of them by far, because it's hired New Zealand funnyman Taika Waititi to direct. Also, the film has been described as a comedic road movie, where Thor and the Hulk team up for an adventure together. The promise of more laughs and some great new additions to the cast (Cate Blanchette! Jeff Goldblum! Tessa Thompson!) make this my most anticipated superhero flick of the year.

"Murder on the Orient Express" - I confess that I never much liked the 1974 screen version of "Murder on the Orient Express," largely because I found Albert Finney's Hercule Poirot over the top and unintelligible. However, I've always like the Agatha Christie story, so I'm eager to see a new adaptation, especially one being helmed by Kenneth Branagh. An all star cast will play the suspects, and Branagh will be playing Inspector Poirot. And if this goes well, maybe we'll have a new Poirot-centric film franchise on our hands.

"Star Wars: Episode VIII" - Rian Johnson has come very, very close in the past to making a great film. I'm really hoping that he pulls it off this time. As with the "Star Wars" prequel trilogy, this is the film that's really going to establish whether the sequel trilogy lives up to the original films. I think all the pieces for a great piece of pop-culture are in place, but we'll see if the filmmakers manage to pull it off. I'm currently wrestling with some theories about where the story is going, which I'll write up a post about later this month.

"Downsizing" - Now, Alexander Payne movies would usually go on the smaller film list. However, his latest stars Matt Damon, and has already landed a December slot with distribution by Paramount Pictures. Though it's clearly being positioned to be an awards contender, "Downsizing" might also gain some wider attention because it's a genre picture. It imagines a world where the hero decides to uncomplicated his life by literally shrinking himself.

---

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Top Ten Films of 1999

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

The Matrix - Nobody can be told what the Matrix is, but forgive me if I try. The Wachowskis' cyberpunk kung-fu movie still holds up beautifully to this day, thanks to its innovative special effects and stylish visual sensibility. Borrowing elements from cyberpunk stories, Japanese anime, and video games, this is genre filmmaking at its finest. There have been plenty of films that have tried to follow in its footsteps, but few managed to nail the right combination of ideas, aesthetics, and endlessly watchable screen violence.

American Beauty - Lester Burnham is Kevin Spacey's signature role, the suburban sad-sack who blows up his life and family by embracing what he truly wants. It's an iconic performance, one that anchors a fantastic ensemble of strong actors, young and old, navigating a lot of thorny material. Sam Mendes and Alan Ball keep their debut feature a darkly funny satire for the most part, but then there are those transcendent moments of emotional clarity, highlighting the genuine bonds between these deeply screwed up people.

Fight Club - This was the first time I really understood who David Fincher was, the fearless provocateur who introduced most of us to Chuck Palahniuk's work with this delightfully dirty, disturbing adaptation. Through an examination of the modern male id, cult dynamics, and the soulless consumer culture, the film captures a slice of the American zeitgeist like no other film of its era. Also, I don't think that it's a stretch to say that "Fight Club" is where Brad Pitt became the Brad Pitt we know today, via the irrepressible Tyler Durden.

The Sixth Sense - It's easy to forget that M. Night Shyamalan once made a truly great film at the start of his career. Built around fantastic performances from Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Wilis, and Toni Collette, "The Sixth Sense" is a genuinely spooky ghost story with lovely redemptive aims, and one of the best endings of the decade. The strong spiritual element elevates funhouse scares above the usual salaciousness of horror films, while the characters are so beautifully drawn, it's easy to become invested in their lives.

Three Kings - A student-teacher of mine once dismissed this film sight unseen as typical Hollywood Orientalist nonsense. While "Three Kings" certainly has its flaws, the filmmakers took every opportunity to criticize America's involvement in and attitudes toward the first Gulf War, often in some some pretty vicious terms. I really appreciated its alternative point of view, gonzo style, and bleak sense of humor. This is the kind of chaotic, but smart, thoughtful, and passionate film that I wish David O. Russell was still making.

Being John Malkovitch - Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry did their best work together, and while I don't think that "Being John Malkovitch" was their best collaboration, it is still a groundbreaking film. The sheer off-the-wall wildness of the concepts and the willingness of the filmmakers to dive headlong in to metanarratives on top of metanarratives, make for a challenging watching experience. I was a little put off at the unconventional nature of the film the first time I saw it, but now I love it a little more every time.

Eyes Wide Shut - The final film by Stanley Kubrick is a surreal journey into the dreams and fantasies that lurk beneath the surface lives of a lovely couple, played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. I've written before that i consider this to be one of the primary films that made me a cinephile, as I came out of my first screening entranced with the menacing atmosphere, coded imagery, sterile sensuality, and brutal score. Decades later, I still can't decipher everything, but its mysteries remain as alluring and disturbing as ever.

The Iron Giant - Brad Bird's feature debut had everything stacked against it, from Warner Bros's lousy marketing to an animation studio in financial crisis However, there is perhaps no animated film more deserving of the enthusiastic audience that eventually embraced it. This thoughtful space-age fairy tale about a boy and his giant robot isn't afraid to talk about big, deep, important things, or to embrace big emotions. I think it may be the last traditionally animated masterpiece to have come out of Hollywood.

Magnolia - The existential melancholy of this collection of lonely people struck such a nerve with me. The performances, the music, and Paul Thomas Anderson's storytelling all contribute to the unique mood of the film. Here is a universe full of coincidences and strange miracles, perhaps best exemplified by the moment where every character sings the same sing in unison. It's a notion that wouldn't have worked in a different film, with a different filmmaker. But with Paul Thomas Anderson, you can't imagine "Magnolia" without it.

Titus - I was obsessed with this one for a while, having become fascinated with the idea of a Shakespeare play full of gory murders, dismemberments, and cannibalism. In the hands of Julie Taymor, "Titus Andonicus" becomes a theatrical phantasmagoria of Grand Guignol delights, borrowing elements from every time period and a huge range of cultures. Harry Lennix very nearly steals the show as the villain, while Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange do some of their best work as rival rulers, each of them out for revenge.

Honorable Mentions

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Rosetta
Topsy Turvy
The Straight Story
Election
All About My Mother
Dogma
Fantasia 2000
Galaxy Quest
Ratcatcher
---

Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Lion" and "Silence"

Two more reviews of prestige pics here, that are for for now the end of my awards season coverage. It's been quite a run.

"Lion" seemed like an unlikely story to be made into a film, when I first ran across the magazine articles about Saroo Brierly a few years ago. As a five year-old, Saroo got on the wrong train, which took him from his rural Indian village to Calcutta (now Kolkata), where it was impossible for him to find his way home again. It was only twenty-five years later, with the help of Google Maps, that he was able to find his way back. However, the journey between those two endpoints definitely yielded some good drama.

The trials and tribulations of young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) take up the entire first half of the film, and it's fantastic. Pawar is deeply compelling as a lost child in an unfamiliar place, who has to dodge multiple dangers and pitfalls in order to survive. Though Calcutta is pictured as sinister and forbidding at times, director Garth Davis also takes the time to show its more picturesque and inviting sides. Saroo's village is poor, but surrounded by natural beauty. Sadly, once the story moves to the adult Saroo (Dev Patel), who now lives in Australia, the film loses a lot of that atmosphere. Saroo's search for his origins follows a far more typical dramatic arc, including difficulties with his adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham), a girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), and adoptive brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa)

Now, all the more famous actors give perfectly good performances, and Davis does his damnedest to make Google searches and flashbacks to mundane events look as exciting as possible. But compared to the first half of "Lion," the second half just doesn't have the same degree of verve and dramatic heft. It also feels a bit padded, as if to purposefully give Mara and Kidman more screentime. The finale is very satisfying, though, and overall this is a perfectly good bit of feel-good melodrama that shines a spotlight on the talents of its Indian actors the way that's rare to see in western films. I was surprised to learn that "Lion" was Garth Davis's feature debut, since his work here is so surefooted. I can't embrace the film fully because of that second half, but this is definitely worth a watch.

Now Martin Scorsese's "Silence" is a far more fascinating picture, an examination of religious faith, set in 17th century Japan, where the heroes are a pair of Portuguese priests. Japan was still largely closed to outsiders, and Christianity was considered a forbidden practice, so any converts were brutally persecuted. The two priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) journey to Japan after they hear rumors that one of their mentors, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has renounced his faith after the persecution of his converts in Nagasaki. Their goal is to find Ferreira and tend to the Christians still in hiding, while evading the local inquisitor, Inoue (Issey Ogata). They quickly find themselves tested by the Japanese authorities, who employ incredibly harsh tactics, including torture, to stamp out Christianity.

Scorsese famously worked on "Silence" off an on for over two decades as a passion project, and the result is an uncompromising, difficult, gorgeous film. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is the real star of the picture, with his transporting images of the Japanese landscape, that look remarkably like they were plucked out of a classical jidaigeki film. Many of the performances are very strong, especially Liam Neeson as the mysterious Ferreira, and Tadanobu Asano as an interpreter for the priests. However, I was most impressed by the script that Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks famously labored over, which is so much harsher and more troubling than I expected. It would be very difficult to sell this as a religious film, since there is so much persistent, fundamental questioning of the characters' faiths. And that's exactly what makes it so unique and involving.

Still "Silence" is far from perfect. I think the film's biggest flaw comes down to how it treats the Japanese. There are several excellent Japanese characters, and generally "Silence" does a much better job of portraying them than we've seen in roughly analogous WWII films like "Unbroken" or Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence." However, this is only true up to a point, and "Silence" still relies on a few too many white savior tropes, even if the film doesn't turn out to actually be an example of that kind of story. Scorsese's treatment of religion and the priests' relationship with the converts also comes across as a bit too whitewashed and unlikely. As complex and boundary pushing "Silence" feels on subject, it's still got some ways to go in others.

---

Friday, March 10, 2017

"Sully" and "Snowden"

Last fall had and awful lot of films based on true stories and famous figures from our recent past, including Clint Eastwood's "Sully" and Oliver Stone's "Snowden." Let's do a little comparing and contrasting.

Eastwood's "Sully," which looks at the events around the "Miracle on the Hudson" plane landing in 2009, is a fairly straightforward tale of heroism. Tom Hanks plays Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who with his First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhardt), landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after bird strikes took out both of the plane's engines. The film recreates the entire dramatic flight, using the NTSB investigations into the accident as a framing device. Sully is placed at the forefront, grappling with PTSD, guilt, and his newfound status as a hero.

There's been some controversy about the film portraying the NTSB as actively trying to find pilot error when there was none, but it works great as a dramatic device, and helps the film to make its case in holding up Captain Sullenberger as a heroic figure. The recreation of Flight 1549, the water landing, and the rescue efforts are all thrilling to watch. Eastwood goes back to it three different times, each in a different context, and it works every time. Sully's subsequent troubles are considerably less compelling, though it impossible to find any character played by Tom Hanks unsympathetic. There's very little to Sully as a character beyond being a sterling American good guy, with a lovely wife, Lorraine (Laura Linney), who finds himself in extraordinary circumstance.

That lack of depth ultimately hurts the film a bit. "Sully" is told in terms that are a little too simple, and Clint Eastwood can't resist giving our hero a little extra vindication. The result is a feel-good film that feels like it's trying too hard to make the case for a figure that has largely been lionized in the American consciousness already. It's also hard to ignore that the film feels awfully light on content, though it runs a scant 96 minutes. I'm thankful that the flashbacks to Sully's early days as a pilot were kept to a minimum, but surely Eastwood could have dug slightly deeper into his personal life? Why not get poor Laura Linney off the phone for just a scene or two? Or simply give us more POV characters during the fateful landing?

"Snowden" doesn't have this problem. It chooses to dramatise how the NSA spying scandal first broke in 2013, with former NSA and CIA employee Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meeting reporters Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Glen Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) in Hong Kong. However, the bulk of the story takes place in flashback, tracing Snowden's career in the US intelligence community and his relationship with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). "Snowden" does an excellent job of getting across how invasive and damaging the government's spying activities were, but Stone goes a little too far in painting Edward Snowden as a heroic figure.

Edward Snowden, unlike Captain Sullenberger, is a controversial figure in many circles, and still living in exile in Russia. So Oliver Stone goes to bat for him in the film's closing moments, and goes to bat with everything he's got. The final scene is an intereview with the present day Snowden that transitions into a closing credits sequence laying out more arguments for his position, with a laudatory Peter Gabriel song on top. It's too much, and actually undercuts a fair bit of the film. Up until that point I found the storytelling a little clumsy, but it was a decent biopic. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does an uncanny cocal impersonation of Snowden, which went a long way toward helping him disappear into the part. However, the romance was pretty tepid, and I'd already seen the Oscar winning documentary "Citizenfour," so the 2013 scenes were awfully repetitve.

"Snowden" is at its best when the title character is acting as a guide to the intelligence organizations that employed him, their operations, their culture, and the fears that drove them. Watching the CIA and NSA employees at work is frightening, and Snowden wrestling with the moral and ethical implications is far more dramatic than what happens once he finally decides to go public. It's easy to see why Oliver Stone was interested in this material, but at the same time he makes some perplexing choices, and lets the story ultimately become too much of a polemic.

It's worth mentioning that Eastwood also put the real Captain Sullenberger at the end of "Sully," but was wise enough to keep the appearance limited to the credits.

---