Snowden directed by Oliver Stone

Review written by Karim Malak

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s lead role in Snowden is a dramatization of the documentary Citizen Four, a semi-autobiographical movie of Edward Snowden’s journey from his time as a CIA/NSA employee to private contractor to whistleblower who is forced to take exile in Russia. Snowden is quite the movie, though it is not a replacement of Citizen Four by any means. It is an interesting dramatization of Snowden’s journey that sheds light on his cause differently than perhaps Snowden would want.

The movie, for example, brings out some elements which Snowden himself presumably wanted left untouched. One example of this is the omission of his relationship with his girlfriend who is constantly and purposefully left out of his battles “for her safety”. Though Edward Snowden’s decision to leave her out of it, “for her protection” as he details in his documentary, is understandable, the movie teases out the tension resulting from his decision not to involve her in the form of the constant fights they have over his “odd” and “secretive” attitude as well as his paranoia. Other times it is more obvious, such as the moment Snowden decides to go off the grid in preparation for contacting journalists and going public about the US mass surveillance program of the world at large. Yet his girlfriend surprises him when he tells her she should go stay with her parents; she replies that if he is going to be gone it would only be noticed faster if she goes to her parents’ house. It turns out that she can think in the same way he does, and can come up with helpful suggestion. This form of comradery stands out as opposed to Snowden’s decision to go on his crusade alone with his patronizing attitude in order “to protect” his girlfriend. Perhaps had she known all along they could have shared more moments together, and perhaps she could have even helped Snowden where he least expected it. The movie – as opposed to the documentary – does a good job at problematizing the idea of the self-righteous genius whistle-blower on his lonely crusade.

Though the dramatization of the movie is sure to give away some of the documentary’s own zealous message, there are instances where it was worth it. In the documentary it is made clear that the system is rigged in favor of the government’s decision to spy on the whole world. In the movie there is a patriotic element to the CIA that engages in a lesser of two evils argument that supports preemptive mass surveillance in order to prevent the next 9/11; this of course makes it seem like the US does not have an imperial agenda of its own. Yet what was welcome, however, was the dramatization of the inaccessible technical details of the mass surveillance program in the documentary. This was achieved through a climactic scene when Snoweden is having sex with his girlfriend and he notices her laptop is still open with the front camera pointed towards them. He is aggravated and is reminded of that spying program that taps into devices and turns them on to use their camera and microphone, while mimicking that the device is still closed.

Another interesting dramatization was the portrayal of the labyrinth bureaucratization of spying on the entire world. The viewer gets a sense of how these genius programmers go about their lives, spying on any unsuspecting victim they target. It casts this act of spying as banal and day-to-day; one sees the ‘bro’ with his mullet hair, goatee and cargo pants walk around normally on a US military base designed solely to spy, the US base being the Kunia Regional Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) Operations center in Hawai. This sense of day-to-day regularity of such an intrusive job is not without complication; at a barbeque party an interesting discussion plays out where these spy-bureaucrats reflect on their job. One begins talking about how he was disturbed to know when he was running technical support mission to a drone strike in the Middle East, it turned out that the successful ‘hit’ actually took the lives of innocent village dwellers. This results in a discussion of whose fault it is, and whether these technicians have any responsibility, at which point a toy drone at the barbeque malfunctions and begins to descend rapidly. Snowden, who throughout the entire discussion was nervous and sweating, falls and has a seizure when the drone hits the ground. The parallel of Snowden experiencing this sort miniature version of a drown strike helps the viewer appreciate the point that these bureaucrats are not without responsibility. Technology fails.

While the movie is Hollywood’s version of Snowden’s odyssey, it is nonetheless worth seeing, if only for Congress’s attempt to halt its screening by releasing the first glimpse into the investigation of the fallout from Snowden’s revelations one day before the movie’s opening.

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2016 Big Apple Film Festival

BAFF Trailer 2016 from Big Apple Film Festival on Vimeo.

Review written by Mike Fishman

The 2016 Big Apple Film Festival came and went in a flurry of activity and kudos once again to founder and director Jonathan Marc Lipp for an ever-growing and impressive fest. I’ve been attending since 2010 and it’s been remarkable to watch this small festival blossom and expand during its annual one-week run.

The evening of short films I attended was literally standing room only and I was lucky to get a cozy aisle seat in the back of the beloved Village East Cinemas, although the screening did not take place in their historic Yiddish theater auditorium, which if you haven’t been to, as soon as you’re done reading this go buy a ticket to whatever film they’re showing there, it will be worth it just to gaze at the ornate decorations before the lights dim. As my schedule this year allowed me to only catch one program, I settled on a Saturday afternoon of seven narrative films, hoping that most if not all would be entertaining and of high quality, and I was not disappointed in the least. Each film, running from 4 minutes to 26 minutes, was carefully crafted and lovingly made and the program, ranging from serious drama to light-hreated comedy, made for a thoughtful, enjoyable journey with the audience responding often as one, a sad sigh here, a loud laugh there.

First up was Cara Consilvio‘s CIT, about two female teenage counsellors-in-training at a summer camp, close friends, one of whom is tasked with keeping the news of the other’s father’s death until her mother can arrive to break the news herself. It’s a touching mini portrait of a friendship between two girls on the cusp of adulthood and tragedy. Consilvio brings out the best in the two young actresses and creates moments in which their friendship is allowed to breathe through shared laughs, quiet reflection, and uncertainty. This was followed by the even more serious Immunity, from director Alyn Darnay,set in 1942 Auschwitz where a young SS Officer faces his once beloved teacher, a Jew who now finds that her most prized pupil has become her tormentor. It’s a cat and mouse game between the two where the question is whether the young man is going to spare the middle-aged woman who has been separated from her family and who almost certainly have been gassed. Things lightened considerably with Kyle C. Mumford’s Jamie and Jonathan, a comedy about a suicidal writer (an all-too-familair theme most writers should recognize) who gets a second chance at being the father he never was to his young son he has no relationship with when he is tasked with driving the boy to a funeral. On paper, this may not sound like a comedy, or perhaps only a dark comedy, but Mumford keeps things light and airy with the father and son shared afternoon and car ride interrupted humorously (the boy wetting his pants when his father won’t stop to let him use the bathroom, the the two bonding over making pancakes) until very close to the end when it’s revealed that the funeral is for the boy’s mother. That this doesn’t descend into mawkishness is testament to Mumford’s direction and writing.

Next up, my personal favorite of the program, Tom Cassese’s Concurrence, whose logline reads: In the final moments before an apocalyptic catastrophe, six people come to terms with their impending doom. That the film runs only four minutes and succeeds beautifully in presenting a doomsday situation through the last actions of just six individuals with virtually no dialogue is proof that brilliant filmmaking can be realized with an extremely brief running time and extremely small budget if the heart, soul, writing and talent are in place. This was followed by Humberto Guzman’s Based on True Events, about a writer whose obsession with her story alienates her from her husband, and that gave the audience an unexpected twist. Speaking of twists, the next film, Christonikos Tsalikis’s I Am Here is defined by its twist, centering on a young man who begins texting with a woman who lived in the house he just moved into and who may or may not be a ghost. The program ended on a decidedly comedic tone with Cinder Chou’s The Man With the Western Hat, an amusing romp about a woman in Brooklyn who has strange encounters with a mysterious handsome stranger/cowboy. It made for a bright tone to end the evening of short films that, in their own unique ways, ran the gamut of serious introspection to light-hearted comedy.

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American Pastoral directed by Ewan McGregor

Review by Karim Malak

Philip Roth’s 1997 timeless novel American Pastoral about a New Jersey small town football and basketball star gets adapted for the screen in this year’s Ewan McGregor film which carries the same name. As both director and lead actor, Ewan McGregor plays Swede Levov: the handsome Jew who goes on to marry the Miss Union County girl, Dawn (played by Jennifer Connelly). It is a seemingly triumphant story of the American melting pot as a Jewish man in 1950′s America rises against the odds, has his cake and eats it. As Swede and Dawn decide to marry, Dawn confronts Swede’s father. Dawn is not one to take no for answers and prevails through all the difficult questions Swede’s father throws at her. She insists were they to have kids their child would be baptized, rather than be in limbo on account of being Jewish, and forces the hand of Swede’s father, Lou Levov, an old and stubborn self-made Jew who owns a leather factory.

Nominated for two awards, best feature at the Hamburg Film Festival and best film at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, American Pastoral is likely to bring together Philip Roth fans and those who appreciate good film in general. American Pastoral departs from Philip Roth’s classic novel style of taking one character and making the viewer see their life through their own eyes as was the case with Indignation, another Philip Roth adaptation that was premiered this year as well that tells the story of the trials and tribulations of a young Jewish atheist at a Catholic seminary who experiences American anti-Jewish attitudes during World War II.

In contrast, American Pastoral, the story is told through Swede’s brother who tells his story during his high-school homecoming and divulges to a friend of Swede that he is actually in town for his brother’s funeral. Told as a flashback American Pastoral thus shows the intersections of the Vietnam War, the black civil rights movement and the everyday racism of the New Jersey police as well as the family politics of a Jewish/Catholic family in which the daughter competes for the love of her father with her mother. Depicting a classic case of the Electra complex, the film increasingly revolves around Swede’s daughter; the American dream it seems of the high school football star who married the high school beauty quickly crumbles.

The movie then plunges into the life of Swede’s stuttering daughter, Merry Levov (Dakota Fanning), who, as the family’s shrink has already stated, lives in the shadow of the local county’s beauty queen mother and the burden to be a perfectionist. In this case, the white picket fence of the family farm is what holds Merry from speaking. As Merry becomes more and more politicized and goes to New York to attend meetings about the Vietnam War she becomes more and more secluded, eventually running away from the house as she joins the political underground as bombings in the US spread while curfews are called in to stop the “rioting” which Merry insists is instead the first wave of the revolution. Swede Levov’s factory which proudly employs “80% Negros” has its windows smashed and its manager, Vicky (played by Uzo Adoba), a black woman in her 40′s, calls to tell him she has never seen anything like this type of violence as police shoot unarmed black protestors. Swede joins her and risks getting shot when he hoists up a sign on the factory windows proclaiming “This factory employs Negros.”

As Merry resurfaces through an alleged comrade, Swede’s life brightens up and he is lured into believing that this mysterious co-activist can lead him to his daughter. After several rendezvous he is disappointed and his wife shows up in the factory naked with leather gloves on, singing and serenading while Vicky yells for him to come quickly. Dawn has had a breakdown and goes to a mental hospital, during which she has a few cathartic episodes where she describes what she sees – her past – “Catholic schools boys as life guards…I should have married them.” She blames Swede, and his non-Catholicism, for their current predicament, implying that they brought into this world an ungodly child. Eventually what brings Dawn back is her decision to do a facelift in Geneva and undergo plastic surgery; she wants to be reborn to bury her past but Swede cannot let go of Merry just yet. As a reborn woman, Dawn is still as beautiful, if not more, as Swede’s father reminds him. She cheats on him with an architect redesigning their home who happens to also be an artist from whom Swede purchases his art to appease his wife.

Merry reappears and Swede learns what she has been through: rape at the hands of her comrades; struggles leaving from Chicago to Boston to New York barely eating and how they ‘used’ her to carry out bombings to protest the Vietnam War. When Swede asks her how many lives she has taken, she replies four. In shock Swede says he can “bring her back;” he is outraged at the those four white deaths, while Merry’s old 16-year-old voice rings in the background, reminding viewers of the previous scenes when she rebutted Swede, asking how many lives in Vietnam were lost while he didn’t care. It is the classic story of the activist underworld that in the name of revolution reproduces the same ills it claims to fight against. As Swede grows old and dies, the movie ends with Swede’s brother and his high school friend at his funeral, only to see Merry reappear by his coffin.

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Loving, written and directed by Jeff Nichols

Loving
Review written Kamhai Beard, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 12

Before I get started with my review, let me tell you something. Love is the key to everything. If any of you have seen this film, you know the main idea of the story already. But if you haven’t, let me bring you up to speed. This is a sad yet romantic film. When I watched this movie, it changed my perspective or at least my way of thinking about love. After watching it, I thought about the life I live today and I realize that without the Lovings, the world would be a much different place.

This movie is about the true story of an interracial couple who fell in love. In the beginning of the movie, we see Mr. Loving (Joel Edgerton) building a new home for himself and his wife. Little did they know that the police were going to soon find out about their marriage and shortly after, they would end up in jail. Back in 1967, in the state of Virginia, interracial marriages were illegal. But love has no color so Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) and Richard Loving decide to fight for what they believed in. When the police find out, they try to stop them. As you watch this movie, it makes you think about love, not differences. Now get this – after watching this movie some of the actors from the film came on stage and told us more about the movie. I learned that when Peggy, the Loving’s daughter first meet Joel Edgerton (who plays her dad in the film), she called him daddy and began to cry.

The filming crew truly captures the reality of the times in so many ways. I recommend this film for ages 10 through 18 and older. Children under 10 would not have learned about this subject yet, but when you’re 10 you already start learning about the racism in their country in social studies. I give this movie 5 out of 5 stars because it was better than my expectations. It has a good storyline and a good setting and, most importantly, the titles really catches the meaning of the film. This film is in theaters now so be sure to check it out.

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Indignation, directed by James Schamus

Review written by Karim Malak.

In the movie Indignation, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s work, the viewer gets a taste of how a Jewish atheist student, Marcus (Logan Lerman) struggles to attend weekly sermons at a prestigious boarding school. Despite doing all he can to avoid being a Jew, Marcus plays a richly written role of a young school boy who is moved by philosophy, music and the arts. Yet despite such qualifications he is reduced by his school master – Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) to sheer inferiority, showing American Anti-Jewish attitudes which are written out of history. With classic anti-Jewish tropes emerging in the film, the movie centers around young ‘Marcie’s’ life where he falls in love with the beautiful Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). As both explore their bodies together, word gets round and Olivia is shamed. While Marcus is taken aback by Olivia performing fellatio on him, he tells his roommates who begin to shun him and shame him. Word gets round fast.

Dean Caudwell uses the opportunity to remind Marcus of Olivia’s past attempted suicide and that she was in an asylum. This is interesting in bringing together how WWII-era ideas about the mental ward were used not only to police women’s bodies – making their sexuality seem like a disease that needed to be controlled – but that it was an ungodly disease that spread first to non-Christians such as Jewish Marcie, who for all his proclamations of being an atheist is not allowed to be one. In fact, Marcus refuses to join the Jewish Fraternity, something that seems to be beyond the head of the fraternity to understand. Yet when Marcus gets sick while arguing with Dean Caudwell, and faints because of his appendix, he wakes up in the hospital only to find the Jewish Fraternity taking care of him. For someone who tries to escape his religion so much, it cannot escape him.

In true renaissance fashion, Marcus embraces his studies and attempts to rise above the discrimination and loneliness by immersing himself in his studies. This idea whereby Marcus constantly removes his Jewish markers that would make him stand out becomes futile. In a heated discussion with Dean Caudwell, he tells him that his father is a butcher, that is what he listed in his paperwork after all; but Dean Caudwell reminds him his father is a kosher butcher. Marcus replies that he begs to differ, his father is not only a kosher butcher. This serves as an apt motif in the movie, why is it that Jews are made to identify as only Jews and at precise moments?

Marcus goes against instinct and upon learning that most students skip weekly sermons by hiring someone to hand in their attendance card, agrees to hire someone. Yet oddly enough his fixer is caught despite all other students having never been caught before. Dean Caudwell clearly does not want Marcus to stay at the school despite being a scholarship student. Upon getting caught red-handed, Marcus is kicked out and is forced to join the army in Vietnam because of the draft. The movie ends where it began: with Marcus running in Army uniform and dying in Vietnam. Marcus’s experience is precisely about the power to have his Jewish identity dictated to him despite all his efforts to hide it; in fact it is not only about having his identity dictated to him by those who want him to remove it, but it is about when his identity is dictated for him. If everybody gets away with forging their attendance during weekly sermons, it is the fact that Marcus was an agitating Jewish student that meant that they policed who handed in their attendance cards rather than leave the box where attendance cards are deposited unattended. It is at this moment, while the war in Vietnam is being fought, that Marcus was rendered a Jew despite all his attempts, ultimately resulting in his death.

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