Citizenfour (2014)

I can’t admit to having paid close attention to the string of stories sparked by Edward Snowden’s decision to leak classified information. I got the broad gist of what was revealed, simultaneously horrifying and unsurprising, but certainly wouldn’t know what had previously been revealed enough to compare to what this documentary reveals. Does it reveal new and distinctly potent classified information as one man suing the filmmakers claims? Does that even matter, as documentary film should receive every bit of the protection that the newspapers that certainly published classified information in the initial release do.

Viewed as a piece of filmic art, the content is actually a bit secondary. What Citizenfour is artistically most interesting as is as a procedural of sorts on how to blow a whistle. Apparently it takes more than putting your lips together. Instead there is a carefully planned series of relationship building, secrecy tactics, PR planning and the lot. Following the process as it happens, with this level of detail is fascinating apart from the weight of the content. Superficial matters like the real charisma of Snowden, who easily lends himself to speculation of the casting of someone like Alexander Skarsgard to play him in a fictionalized film.

Of course, it is impossible to avoid talking about the content of his revelation. To some degree, the idea that this revelation was damaging to national security is kind of laughable mostly because the surveillance state it reveals seems too encompassing to escape. Knowledge of it provides little recourse, and those who do find the capabilities to avoid detection probably already were pursuing those strategies even without specific knowledge of the programs. I still think the Oscars joke about Snowden missing the show “for some treason” was funny, but obviously this is not that. It is information that provoked an important debate, though it is hard to say if it actually reveals illegal actions (if only because the legal barriers are so soft) and thus by the letter of the law, Snowden might not be legally justified to violate the confidentiality.

Obviously, the ramifications for this all-knowing government, if it were used out of malice, would be catastrophic. Though the idea of a government that turns a blind eye to these channels of communication is kind of horrifying in its own right. At this point most of the concern is speculation. There is a lot of fear about those reporting this story, or similar stories, being at risk of target, but there’s little actual ramification to suggest this is more than paranoia. It seems better suited to less hyperbolic conversations about liberal principle. We don’t need to label the government Big Brother to recognize that we are shading into ill advised territory.

Certainly my fear of the government collecting my data to use against me is small enough that it loses out in the cost benefit analysis of actually taking steps to evade it. Dropping off the grid might be a strategy, but it seems like a terrible life. Truth be told, I’m vastly more worried about private actors. I’m worried about hackers, in some respects emboldened by the NSA when they opted to exploit the Heartbleed bug instead of work to get it closed. I’m worried about internet hate mobs that violate people’s privacy to intimidate and terrorize with tactics like doxxing. In the realm of perceived threats, these seem like much more likely digital threats than the government collecting all my data and using it to hurt me. This tends to be where Snowden and the main journalist here, Glenn Greenwald, lose me, but especially enabled by the film’s craft, I feel grateful for their work here.

A

Shoes (1916)

There is a point watching Shoes, Lois Weber’s socially activist film on the plight of poverty on young women, that I found myself a bit irked. The film focuses on Eva (Mary MacLaren), the sole worker supporting her parents and three younger sisters. The blame for their plight falls pretty squarely on her father who is painted as a layabout who opts for smoking his pipe and reading novels over getting work, and largely condemns the family to this struggle. I felt like this was an overly shallow character and was wishing Weber would draw out his character a bit more. Then it hit me, this is kind of an inversion of what has often been the problem for female characters on screen in the century since this film was made. I don’t know that this excuses the film from relying on this device to drive the drama, but it certainly puts it into perspective.

There are some other aspects, aside from the health of the job market for her father, that the time in between makes a bit unclear. For one, as the title indicates, shoes are central to Eva’s plight. She wants new shoes as hers are tattered. It turns out the pair of shoes she is eying costs $12, or what would today be about $200. I have no doubt that shoes would be more expensive in relative terms back then because we will have no doubt gained efficiency through technology, but the film spends enough time framing her class envy for rich girls that one wonders if this pair of shoes was entry level or a luxury. This probably doesn’t change the general thrust of the story, about poverty ultimately a source of sexual coercion, but it does slightly weaken the case.

This fits comfortably in Weber’s filmography that spoke strongly to social issues, particularly the plight of women. It shows some of the technical flair that marked her as an early innovator of the form. Still, overall it sits in the lower portion of her accessible filmography.

B-

The Graduate (1967)

The Graduate is in many ways the ultimate Baby Boomer movie. Ben Braddock, turning 21 early in the film, is on the leading edge of the Boomer generation. In consideration of watching this, I feel like the next time I hear a Boomer talking about the entitlement and laziness of the Millennial generation, I’ll tell them to go watch the fucking Graduate again and shut the fuck up. Here we have a kid fresh out of college, idling without a job or any real direction, listless because the suburban peace and prosperity, along with high hopes and expectations from his parents, leave him without passion. I’d like to point out that this was a time of 5% GDP growth and he probably had no student loans to reckon with. So yeah, tell me again about how my generation is entitled, seeing as at that age we were dealing with the worst economy in your lifetime, caused in large part by policies you enacted once you got in power.

Generational chip on my shoulder aside, it is interesting how much the story relies on manufactured drama. I guess things were so boring, on the eve of the late-60s/early-70s political tumult, that people had to create their own excitement. Some of the moments from the infamous seduction scene had me thinking I was watching something ala Fifty Shades, with Mrs. Robinson in the role of the dominatrix, but most of the film I felt I was watching Dustin Hoffman practicing for his role in Rain Man. Both in the tone and the discomfort of his social interactions, there is a certain autistic shading to this character, and when the film goes full on horror mode with Ben stalking Elaine, it suggests someone without a good sense of boundaries. I struggled to ever buy this relationship so most of what happens in the second half fell flat for me. I guess what I’m saying is the Boomers can keep it, I prefer my soundtrack-supported malaise in the form of Garden State.

C-

Life Itself (2014)

Aside from the obvious emotional impact, the shift from Life Itself as biography to eulogy must have posed at least some challenge to Steve James in putting together this film. A lot in the early portion of this film definitely surprises in a warts and all fashion, from alcoholism and a certain coarseness in his approach to women to his tempestuous professional relationship with Gene Siskel. Especially on the latter, they hit it hard enough that I was ready to write both of them off because watching some of that nastiness can be a bit much. However, the film tends to resolve these character flaws in affecting ways.

The highlight of the film for me, for personal reasons, was the discussion of the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, something I attended a couple years when I was a student there. I saw Ebert on at least one panel, though never his Interruptus series, which is a regret (but I had school obligations). It was here that I had an exchange with Ebert during a Q&A for a panel on whether video games were art. I certainly think I was right (they can be art) but have to admit that Ebert ran circles around me when it came to actually arguing the point on that day. As such I could easily have done with more of this in the film.

To some degree I think the film spends too much time in a certain meta-zone, the actual process of how James asked questions and the developments as the filming happened. This feels less focused and vital to capturing Ebert’s legacy, even if it makes emotionally compelling cinema. Not generally mentioned are Ebert’s Great Movies books or his Overlooked Film Festival, though we do get some good personal stories of director interactions and the way he could positively influence the lives of filmmakers. We don’t really get much about how Ebert as political being came about, especially in his latter blogging era. I guess this is what makes it feel like a distinctly James film as slightly unfocused emotionalism over more structured intellectual rigor is a critique I’ve had with all of his films.

B-

Predestination (2014)

*this review contains massive spoilers, and a bunch of extra random discussion of the film*

Reading the Wikipedia article about this film, there is a quote from the writers/directors, the Spierig brothers, saying that if a hole were found within the Heinlein short story that forms the base of this film, it would have been found by now. Thus they rest comfortably that this twisty time-travel tale’s internal logic will hold. Well, I’m not sure about everyone else, but I didn’t struggle to find a weak point in the logic of the film, a matter of simple biology. Even if we assume an intersex individual has sufficiently developed sexual organs of both sexes that they can both in turn be fully viable at reproduction (I’m not entirely an expert on this, but what I do know would tend to lean toward infertility, not dual fertility), the logical problem is a much more simple matter of biology, namely that a sperm cell is half of one’s DNA code and an ovum is half of one’s DNA code. Each sperm and each ovum is different because it splits the various chromosomal pair in half in different ways, most notably in males splitting the X from the Y to ultimately determine, with some allowance for variation, whether the child will be male or female. Given this tendency toward variation, the odds of two genetically identical people from naturally producing a genetically identical child is vanishingly small. And yet that vanishingly small probability is the pin holding the entire logic of Predestination together.

Still, if I allow it this one fault, there is something impressive in this notion of completely closed loop wherein genetic material manages to exist without an external source. It works the mind as a paradox. I’d say the meaning of the story then is to create this device as a way of short-circuting discussions of genetic destiny, destiny being a point of discussion in this film, and most time travel films that recognize certain events as becoming hard-wired into reality. It takes temporal destiny to create this freedom from genetic destiny, so there’s a touch of irony involved. It is fun to think about, but ultimately, I’m not sure the rewards are quite there.

The one thing in the film that I think deserves unambiguous praise is the performance of Sarah Snook as Jane/John. Even if I critique the film a bit for acting like Sarah Snook is convincingly not good looking, able to immediately gain our sympathies for her ostracized orphan, I can’t critique the performance that must shine through pretty heavy make-up at times. Now does the film say much about gender? At this point I’m not sure and that is one part I’ll have to consider before I make a final decision on the film. For now:

B

As to [the question of gender], transgender is probably the wrong word to apply to the film, though I suppose it may still have relevance on that front, but in this specific case, the character is intersex. Jane expresses herself as a bit at odds with being a woman, certainly showing divergence from gender expectations of the age in being tougher and smarter, but she never really expresses it as a mismatch. In truth, she only really shows discomfort when forced into life as a man, and at this point also expresses divergence in taking up a more emotional profession writing confession stories. Becoming a male seems to open her up to her feminine a bit more.

I guess if I wanted to go really deep, the film is the story of God creating us in his/her image that also serves as the creation of God. Instead of the turtle that the world rests on standing on turtles all the way down, this theory would manage that closed loop creation. It suggests that there is male and female in all of us (and the fact that Jane is born as a “girl” reflects the fact that we are all female until hormones activate to create a male) and maybe could call out gender constructions. But I don’t really want to give the film more credit on the issue than it really merits. You could paint a fall from grace narrative starting with the innocence of a woman and ending with the violence of a man, but that would be fueling gender stereotypes.

One scene that maybe I should watch again because it didn’t have any impact on me was the attempt by John to justify his bombings to his younger self. It went by a bit quick. Frankly, the early scenes of the film I described in my mind as anti-world building because the whole Fizzle Bomber set-up did nothing for me so I guess I remained confused about that whole thing. It feels like a red herring that is just useful to the creation of the loop.

The Overnighters (2014)

Sometimes it seems the problem with the Western genre is it is too well defined, or at least too often it is too narrowly considered. Though it is a film that takes place in modern times and is a documentary, I’d argue that The Overnighters could be placed in the Western genre. What it may lack in horses and gunfights it makes up with other characteristics of the frontier, men trying to make a new life in a place less likely to hold their old life against them, and missionaries out to win their souls for God. The setting is Jay Reinke’s Lutheran church in Williston, North Dakota, the site of an oil boom (the modern version of the gold rushes familiar to many a Western). The rapid growth has exceeded the housing capacity of the area and Reinke feels the Christian thing is to do what he can to provide housing, whether it is offering the floor of his church, its parking lot, or even a sofa in his family’s home. I feel a certain connection to the story in that I too uprooted a few years back and headed for North Dakota in pursuit of greener pastures, opting for Fargo, which has job openings aplenty with none of the dramatic housing shortage, albeit not the astounding wages either.

The Overnighters asks two big questions: what is the nature of Christianity and what is the nature of America. Christianity is idealized as loving of neighbors, of sacrifice to lift other’s up. America is idealized as a place where a person can be reinvented, where hard work overcomes one’s status or past. The reality of Williston both illustrates these myths and calls them into question.

In its theological question, it mirrors one of my favorite documentaries of all time, A Time For Burning in that it pits someone who in some ways plays the role of the true Christian, the one actually acting on Jesus’ message, in the face of opposition from others around him that let either prejudice or fear turn them away from their responsibility to their neighbors. However, it does feel like it focuses more on the operational aspects and some of the more dramatic conflict points than the theological questions.

It probably is more poignant on the broader question of the American Dream. Here we have men (by and large) who are doing what in theory society celebrates. How many conservatives arguing against extended unemployment benefits have urged that people move to places like Williston. Yet it is in many respect these same conservatives who then are fearful of these strangers that have come to their community. Most of the people featured in the documentary are white and certainly mostly American, though a little montage at the end reveals a lot of the people who have come in are immigrants. It seems the film wanted to avoid that particular conversation. There is a Catch-22 at work in that this type of influx, dramatically shifting the gender balance of a community, introducing wealth without stability, is well known to increase crime, so there is some logic behind the anxiety. On the other hand, efforts like Reinke’s provide stability for those it reaches and thus prevents crime. Yet this anxiety conflates the two and targets Reinke as harboring this threat. This is particularly dramatic with the topic of sex offenders, which becomes a particular flashpoint, as it always seems to. Never mind the individual story which might make someone see past the label and not fear a person, these are the reflexive barriers that our society puts up that render the concept of the American Dream a lie.

For all the documentary’s success, the last ten minutes were really infuriating. As it is a documentary, I probably can’t blame it, but on the other hand, all documentaries are ultimately edited so maybe it is fair. Basically, the events of the last ten minutes feel rather contrived to put a tragically cyclical bow one the entire film, and do so in a way that at least brushes by homophobia. It leaves a bitter taste that can make it hard to remember how powerful the rest is.

A-

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)

It is a well worn joke about the Oscars that the sure way to win one is to play someone with a debilitating disease or disability or to be a Holocaust victim/survivor. That the favorites for Best Actor and Actress this year fit into that categorization does nothing to minimize this. Well, if a similar list were made regarding my own favorites, surely a coming of age story about a girl running headlong into restrictive gender expectations would be on that list, so in a way Princess Kaguya is cheating, it is Bondo-bait.

A bamboo cutter is out in the fields doing his job when a beam of light draws him to a sapling revealing a tiny baby girl. He carefully carries her home cupped in his hand and he and his wife take to raising her as their own child (though somewhat annoyingly, the wife basically shoves him out of the way to suggest that raising a child is no place for a man). This is clearly a magical child, as she grows and learns at a rapid pace. Soon enough she is running around with a pack of boys from their rural village. In what is no symbolic coincidence, just as she is hitting adolescence, her family moves to the capital city, spurred by seemingly divine revelations to her father that she should be made into a princess. Here she is put with a governess set on training her in the ways of a proper lady, which tends to mean stamping out her free spirit and joy. Looming is the prospect of a largely arranged marriage to someone of a suitable class, fitting on the history of the institution as an economic transaction, and further confirmed by the suitors’ comparisons of her to invaluable treasures. It is a fascinating feminist parable.

True to Studio Ghibli’s running theme, there is an undercurrent of environmentalism present as well. Her childhood is associated with a close connection to nature, living very closely with and from nature’s bounty. Just as her adolescence triggers a move away from nature, so does the boys, tied with the overuse or degradation of nature in some way, arguably a hint at global harms of male gender expectations, even if that isn’t the focus of the story. This is all going quite well but I have to admit to being a bit let down in the third act. The pacing seems to slow down a fair bit and the way the story turns mostly lost me thematically. It was only at this part that the film, long for an animated feature at well over two hours, started to feel its length. This might be enough to knock it out of the all time great animated films, but it still figures right in there with Grave of the Fireflies as Takahata’s masterpieces. I know what I’ll be pulling for on Oscar night.*

A-

*I haven’t seen Song of the Sea, so you know, maybe that one deserves it.

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