Monday, December 26, 2016

This week's DVD releases

American Honey ***

Andrea Arnold’s American Honey — a fictional story drawn from real life, about marginalized teenagers who sell magazine subscriptions door to door — pinpoints issues that every American needs to think about: our country is so fractured that prosperous citizens can spend their whole lives tucked away in well-manicured neighborhoods, while just a few miles off, a little kid is opening the door to an empty fridge.

But there’s a fine line between dramatizing human circumstances in a way that leaves us shaken or joyful, or both, and making a carefully calibrated sociology project. American Honey, its good intentions aside, tilts toward the latter. Star (Sasha Lane) is a teenager living somewhere in the Midwest, a young woman who resorts to dumpster diving to feed the two small children in her care (and they’re not even hers). She’s dazzled when a pack of those magazine-selling teens comes through her town — they live a life of freedom she can barely imagine — and the charisma of their best salesman, Jake (a shambling, seductive Shia LaBeouf), doesn’t hurt. So she takes off with them, hitting the road in their van: in the daytime, they fan out through fancy neighborhoods and sometimes through distressed ones, hawking a product that they know no one wants. At night, they pile into cheap hotel rooms paid for by their exploitative boss, Krystal (a magnetic, take-no-prisoners Riley Keough), whose management style is as hard and precise as the tight little rings of liner around her eyes. They also party, hard. And they fall in love: the attraction between Jake and Star, who’s gentle and generous but nobody’s fool, is immediate, and their love story is the movie’s most potent ingredient.

Arnold, who is English (and who has made some astute, beautiful pictures, like the 2009 Fish Tank), wrote American Honey after traveling through the U.S., alone, on a number of road trips. Meticulously shot by Arnold’s regular cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, the film folds in lots of documentary-style details, from moths clinging to drifty cotton curtains to shacks masquerading as homes with moldy ceilings and dishes piled high in the sink. Arnold, who cast the movie largely with unknowns, also has a knack for finding great faces: Lane’s Star, with her soulful eyes and a pout like a stubborn cherub, is the movie’s center — you can’t help feeling for her.

Yet there’s something belligerent about Arnold’s approach, in the way she shows us flies buzzing around a dirty counter or a precocious little girl, living in seemingly hopeless circumstances, who has committed to memory the lyrics of the punk song I Kill Children by Dead Kennedys.

Over and over, American Honey calls attention to how observant it is, rather than just being observant. It’s as if Arnold assumes that we wouldn’t be able to care about kids trying to change their lives by fighting for scraps dropped from the capitalist table. American Honey trusts more in our heartlessness than in our compassion. Even if — maybe especially if — that’s a tragically accurate assumption, bullying us into caring isn’t going to help.

Snowden **
The voice of skepticism is sorely missed in Oliver Stone’s credulous bio-pic, Snowden. But Stone doesn’t really do skepticism, characters playing the Devil’s Advocate, contrary voices. He didn’t have that to impedge his groveling before Hugo Chavez in the documentary he made about the Venezuelan populist/strongman. He didn’t let facts get in the way of his grand Vast Right Wing Conspiracy epic, J.F.K. So why start with Snowden, a hagiography celebrating the ego-tripping "moralist" who exposed the vast U.S. data-sweeping capabilities to journalists bent on embarrassing the bulwark of liberty facing down a sea of anarchy, Islamo-fascism and unreconstructed communist dictatorships?

But as lopsided as the film is, depicting the NSA/CIA contract "leaker" as the greatest friend privacy rights and freedom ever had, he makes plenty of sturdy moral arguments, the ones that allegedly drove the then-29-year-old to put himself above an elected government with (supposed) checks and balances and expose the country to ridicule by its friends and subversion by its enemies. As Snowden’s intel-mentor, drolly performed by Rhys Ifans, puts it to his new charge just as Snowden is joining the intel war, "If there is another 9/11, it’ll be your fault." Indeed. Snowden and his fellow bomb-throwing vandal Julian Assange of Wikileaks are exposing those who won’t kill them for telling their secrets, leaving the great criminal enterprises, outlaw states and murderous cyber-barbarians of every religious and Russian stripe all but untouched.

But I digress. When the filmmaker’s opening title describes the film as "dramatized" from actual events, not even bothering with "Based on the true story" or "inspired by the true story," you have to wonder what you can believe. And based on Stone’s and Snowden’s record of spin, it all starts to play like agitprop — a $4 word best abbreviated as "B.S."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt dons glasses and cleverly colors his voice into Snowden’s tech savant drone, portraying a patriotic soldier unfit for the Special Forces job he craved, but who finds his niche in Sig-Int, Signals Intelligence. He’s a self-taught programmer/hacker/decoder who dazzles his mentors (Ifans and Nicolas Cage) and supervisors, earning promotions and more and more prominent postings. Shailene Woodley is the leftist girlfriend the young conservative bickers with and loves. Shailene is a smart actress who relishes any role that lets her play a full-fledged adult, so naturally there’s a nude love scene. Zachary Quinto is crusading paranoid (perhaps with cause) journalist Glenn Greenwald, Melissa Leo is the documentary filmmaker who joined Snowden, Greenwald and a veteran British newspaper reporter (Tom Wilkinson) in a Hong Kong hotel room where they schemed to unleash the story of this vast data gathering operation on the world.

Cell phone and Internet companies turning over tracking data, backdoor entryways and bulk email and phone records to the United States, sweeping sweeps of personal records that span the globe and the United States, it was all news to us. Computer cameras activated by remote control, real-time observing of often innocent people who might have three, four or five degrees of separation from someone with ties to illicit activity. Good stuff, important to get out there. But … Except, well, maybe a lot of people figured their electronic footprint was no place for privacy. And in a war with ruthless cyber-states like China, North Korea and the hacking haven of Russia, well, who is naive enough to think there won’t be excesses?

"Most Americans don’t want freedom," Ifans, this film’s version of the all-knowing/all-pontificating Donald Sutherland spook of J.F.K., intones. "They want security." Here’s another, delivered as he is literally and hilariously made to embody Big Brother (on a giant TV screen), "Secrecy is security, and security is victory!" Well, sure. And if the film makes the case that this is a conversation we’ve avoided having and shouldn’t avoid, bravo Oliver Stone. But he’s not content there, no. This is a Snowden of pure heart, purer motives, purer still methods — he goes out of his way to leave a "trail" so that his Intel colleagues won’t be implicated in his espionage. It’s hagiography. This is "Snow White" (a colleague’s nickname for him, or was it?) Snowden, not the self-satisfied, morally superior attention whore who would rather flee, with the aid of China, to Russia on his way to Ecuador, rather than face the music and force this debate in open court. You know, the Snowden we’ve seen on TV, interviewed freely by all media comers.

The film presents the various waypoints of Snowden’s career, the ways he picked up intel outside of his paygrade, his rising paranoia that he and he alone has put the whole nefarious picture together in his head, and his difficulty keeping his free spirit lady love from posting nude self-portraits on her hard drive. Yes, "Terrorism is the excuse" for everything he found a threat to our liberties — the judge, jury and executioner drone strikes driven by simple suspicious cell-phone numbers (according to Snowden), the spying on businesses, governments, looking for vulnerabilities to exploit. Perhaps America would be safer had Snowden just read a few good spy novels to understand the moral grey area of all of this sort of work. It’s not pretty, and he’s not Jesus on a Laptop.

The over-arching accusations — some of which have been borne out, others discounted utterly — the suspicion he applied to everyone and everything — UNTIL he meets some journalists of various stripes, whom he instantly tells "I TRUST you" — the patriotic kid whose patriotism turned from conservative combat ambitions to "saving" us from our intel state tyranny — it’s all just too hard to swallow, even if Stone, as usual, shoves it down our throats. And only Oliver Stone would insist that we do — swallow it — without bothering to chew over the facts first.

Other new releases this week:
A Man Called Ove **½ This film — preaching tolerant togetherness as the key to happiness — earns its sentimentality by striking a delicate balance between barking-mad comedy and syrupy melodrama.
Coming Through the Rye **½ It’s not a perfect film, but it’s one that resonates for anyone who’s ever been touched by a book, movie, painting or song and had their world shift into something it wasn’t before.
In a Valley of Violence **½ W never get more than a glimmer of personality within these well-worn character types, and director Ti West never digs beneath them to offer any sort of commentary or criticism.
Dog Eat Dog ** One thing that can be said about this brazen crime comedy is that it is a full-blooded venture in every respect, with Schraeder and his leads Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe clearly enjoying the gore-soaked frenzy, But the film also feels like a too-familiar reheating of in-your-face Tarantino-style crime topes.
The DressmakerIt is an odd story, mixing haute couture, small-town gossipry, romance, dark secrets, an old murder mystery and multiple random deaths. And yet it’s also not nearly odd enough, delivering all this with a disappointingly straight-laced sensibility.
When the Bough Breaks ½* There’s not an ounce of suspense in this movie, because you’ve seen it all before, and because the director seems uninterested in veering from the well-established formula.

**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

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