Citizenfour (2014)

Citizenfour (2014) movie poster

director Laura Poitras
viewed: 02/24/2015

Laura Poitras’s documentary about Edward Snowden and his exposure of the U.S. government’s unprecedented spying on citizens won Best Documentary at the Oscars last Sunday.  The film’s controversy around its production and relationship with Snowden, breaking his story journalistically, meeting with him in secret in Hong Kong to film him and learn what he had to reveal, helped to build the film’s reputation and notoriety.  I was excited to see the film, myself.

Though touted as being as tense and dramatic as any fictional thriller, I’ll be honest and say that I found Citizenfour much more a slog than a nail-biter.  While the story is utterly compelling and significant, the film focuses on Poitras’s introduction to Snowden through encrypted emails, coordination with other journalists, namely Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill, and their covert connection in a Hong Kong hotel room, poring over encrypted stolen files, deciding what to publish, how to publish, and how to evade eventual arrest by the American authorities.

Snowden’s revelations are important.  He’s a very smart man who had been given access to CIA and NSA data and data structures as a specialist in protecting, implementing and organizing the surveillance and data collection that the government began culling in earnest post-September 11, 2001.  He found that numerous corporations colluded to share private data about citizens, utterly unrelated to concerns of any crimes, raising terrifying truths about information age privacy and freedom.  His vantage and knowledge offered a perspective on this secret and its significance that many others probably would have a hard time getting their head around.

Frankly, it’s unsurprising.  There is more data available in our world today about people and their practices than ever before.  And a lot of it isn’t even hiding much less protected.  It’s not hard to fathom governments or corporations or even really intelligent and motivated hackers gaining access to the mass, evolving algorithms to make sense of it all, to spy with cameras, credit cards, text messages, internet activity and knowing way more than anyone ever could have about someone, all someones.  In fact, it’s almost inescapable.

Snowden’s exposure sheds light on the fact that the U.S. government (and other governments) actively spy on (essentially) everyone.  It’s Orwellian in ways that Orwell could never have conceived, far more pervasive and extreme.  And what does this really mean for us as private citizens?  What is privacy in this day and age?  And Greenwald and Snowden rightly raise concerns about what this signifies for “freedom”.  This is all true, massively, massively true.

But this is one genie that will never be returned to its bottle.

Whether laws are passed or not, that the data exists, there are the technologists (or hackers) who can and will access it, cull it, expose it, use it, exploit it.  The paranoia that Poitras and team are under is real.  Snowden is wanted presently for crimes equated to treason.  And this story, so important and newsworthy, is far from finished.

Like Bradley Manning’s leaks of classified government information, exposed by Wikileaks and Julian Assange, the role of internal whistleblowers and the press and their relationship to public knowledge and information really stands out for me here.  Snowden approached the press because he wanted help sorting through what to share and what may not have been relevant.  He wanted dedicated journalists to assess what he had uncovered to shape the message and release of information.  This I think helps to justify the Snowden and his goals.  Like Daniel Ellsburg before them, there is great relevance in finding out what goes on behind the closed doors of the government, and surely the government would like to keep the public out, branding its exposers as traitors and the information released as a great risk to national security.

Where Manning was a very low-level cog in the information machine, though with still very intensive access, Snowden was an expert, a consultant, whose access depth was necessary to delve into the works and workings and goals of the machine.  His understanding of what he saw and what he chose were much more sophisticated and all the more damning and deep in what it revealed.

Frankly, I think Citizenfour is important as part of the story of unveiling these truths, but I would say that it’s not as compelling or dramatic as many would have you think.  It will be interesting to see where it falls as history unfolds, in what it documented and what it tells as this becomes part of the greater story of our time.  It’s a good documentary, but more than anything, it’s about a very relevant and important subject.

Do I think that Snowden or Manning are traitors?  Not in the greater sense of what that implies.  Surely they had access to information that they had levels of clearance for and which they knew were criminal to release.  I haven’t seen the data Snowden released, merely have heard it encapsulated.  It’s massive, the amount of it.  Was some of it more dangerous than others?  I don’t know.  You wouldn’t know from watching Citizenfour.

I think the revelations are important.  What they signify is an immense truth about the modern age in ways that we are all too naive about unless we consider them, know of them.  I think the vigilant folks that fight for our rights, freedoms, and privacy are in many stripes, on the front lines and even on different sides.

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The Trouble with Harry (1955) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 02/22/2015

The thing about Alfred Hitchcock is that I’ve been actively revisiting (and visiting for the first time), film by film, his whole oeuvre.   I’ve been delving into Hitchcock with my kids, something I only started a few years back after a long lag in seeing his films.  Why the long lag?  I don’t know but for the most part the kids have been pretty into watching Hitchcock films.  The Trouble with Harry seemed like a good one for us.

Somewhat a-typical for “the master of suspense” is this rather dark yet very light comedy about a small Vermont town and a suspicious corpse that suddenly appears on one of its gorgeous hillsides.  Edmund Gwenn is a poacher who thinks he’s accidentally shot and killed the man.  Mildred Natwick is a spinster (at 42!) who thinks she’s killed him with her shoe.  Or maybe it was Shirley MacLaine (insanely pretty in her first screen role) who turns out to be the wife of the itinerant body.  Harry gets buried and unburied several times with the help of roving artist John Forsythe and the crew, who all for various reasons of ranging a-morality don’t have much trouble helping to cover up the murder, no matter who done it.

This was one of those Hitchcocks that had fallen out of availability until the 1980’s and got a lot of play when they were re-released.  I could have sworn that I’d seen it, but after watching it with Felix and Clara, I think it’s fair to say that I hadn’t actually seen it before for whatever reason.

I actually enjoyed it quite a bit, though I suppose it isn’t one of Hitchcock’s great films.  It has a strange tonality, of lightness and humor, while a strong component of awkward darkness.  Because it is light and nothing really bad happens in it, and it’s funny too, but the undertone is about how happily and readily all these would-be small town sweethearts of people so willingly contrive to cover up a crime (the kids were quite perplexed by their attitudes on this front, though I reckon that is the whole point).  Light and deft and good-natured and fun but quite cynical deep in its roots.

Jerry Mathers appears (have to say I didn’t even recognize him) as a funny pre-Leave It to Beaver oddball kid.  He’s got the best lines and is very funny, too.

Not your typical Hitchcock, but interesting more so perhaps because of that.

The Monolith Monsters (1957)

The Monolith Monsters (1957) movie poster

director John Sherwood
viewed: 02/21/2015

The Monolith Monsters was one of those classic 1950’s sci-fi/horror films, from Universal Pictures no less, that I grew up with from Saturday afternoons and the spate of old films on 1970’s television.  I’d like to say that I loved it, but I didn’t, really.  I liked it.  It has a lot of those elements of the time and character of the films of the 1950’s, the drama, that image of 1950’s America, the strange science.  But the thing is, the film is about an invasion of fast-growing rocks that come to destroy Earth.  It’s kind of like the most boring idea for a monster ever employed seriously in a film.  As good as it gets, it’s still rocks.

That said, it’s still pretty good.  Crafted from a story by the great Jack Arnold and Robert M. Fresco and capably directed by John Sherwood for Universal, it’s really a pretty good B-movie.  And frankly, the main credit may go to the special effects by Clifford Stine, because those crystal-like monolithic rock formations have their moment, coming through a river valley, descending upon a small Southern California town.

The kids and I watched this film “live,” if you will, on MeTV, this channel deep in the cable box that plays almost entirely classic television shows from the 1950’s-1960’s, the stuff I grew up watching in reruns, later on Nick at Nite, and now have this total sentimental hankering for nowadays.  The film was part of a horror film show, hosted by Svengoolie.  For a movie whose running time is 77 minutes, there were an additional 43 minutes of corny jokes and mesothelioma commercials (much more the latter), which stretched the experience out well beyond endurance (I say literally this because both kids zonked out before the end.)

I recall, even as a pretty young kid, pondering this film after watching it, examining its disappointments and yet still vividly recalling it.  The image of the small town on the edge of the mountains with the giant black rock crystal towers falling upon them, still significantly lingered in my mind.  The milieu is very Jack Arnold, really.  It could be the same small town as in Tarantula (1955) or It Came from Outer Space (1953).  A couple of Stine’s effects were lifted from the latter film.

Strangely, it seems almost a more pure 1950’s science fiction affair.  It’s easy to envision the images on a pulp magazine from that decade or even prior, some unknown element brought to Earth on a meteorite, spelling untold science-y horror and doom for mankind.  That said, the science was probably dubious even in 1957, with these unrecognizable rocks sucking silica from the environment, growing when doused with regular old H2O, but stopped by salt water.

I have to say it, I love this period and genre of horror/sci-fi.  And I think I kind of love this movie, too.

Gone Girl (2014)

Gone Girl (2014) movie poster

director David Fincher
viewed: 02/19/2015

I’ll keep it simple.  David Fincher’s Gone Girl is a good adaptation of a pretty great crime novel by Gillian Flynn.  It’s well-cast, particularly Rosamund Pike as the missing wife and Ben Affleck as the husband in question.  At two and a half hours long, it packs as much as it can in from the novel and does so in Fincher’s steely, cold style, apt to the material that is so dark at heart.

The thing is that the novel is simply a better read than the film a movie.  I’d only read the book about a month ago, so it was still fresh in my mind, so fresh that I could hear dialogue seemingly lifted verbatim from the page.  And while it was kind of cool to see the visions put into concrete images, the film misses what I found to be the novel’s best innovation and development, namely the deep, disturbing evil at the heart of the story.  The film doesn’t capture the depth of Flynn’s portraiture.

Affleck may never have been so well-cast.  He’s perfect as the good-looking shlub of a cheat of a husband.  Pike is actually more of a revelation as the wife.  Her good-looks and intelligence have a different tone than I’d picked up in the novel but it’s perfectly fit and quite uncanny.

But the novel is better.  Read the book.  The movie isn’t bad.  It’s pretty good.  But the book is pretty great.

Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (2004)

Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (2004) movie poster

director Margaret Brown
viewed: 02/17/2015

Before watching Margaret Brown’s documentary Be Here To Love Me, I really didn’t know a whole lot about singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt.  I knew that he died young (age 52) and somewhat tragically, that his biggest claim to fame was having written the song “Pancho and Lefty” that Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard made big in the 1980’s, and I also knew that Brown’s documentary was considered a well-made telling of his story.

Van Zandt’s is a sad, tortured tale.  Handsome and from a prominent Texas family, he suffered from manic depression and was submitted to insulin shock therapy which damaged his long-term memory, seeming to only further his rambling and eternal depression and drug and alcohol addiction.  Arising in the 1960’s and 1970’s, his style is part folk/part country, with a fair embellishment of blues.  He began his career with heavy influences from Bob Dylan and Lightning Hopkins.  His record deals were all small ones, and while he never achieved huge fame, he humbly clung to his craft and continued to write and perform.

Brown’s film is comprised of footage of Van Zandt from other films, notably one called Heartworn Highways (1981), which focused on the “Outlaw Country” scene of the 1970’s (a movie I’d be keen to watch), interviews with friends, family, and colleagues, and imagery of the Texas that was his milieu.   The portrait that comes together is one of a damaged but talented soul, his music, and his legacies.

Margaret Brown is a good documentarian.  I’d watched another of her films, The Order of Myths (2008), which I also found quite well-made and profound.


The Blue Dahlia (1946)

The Blue Dahlia (1946) movie poster

director George Marshall
viewed: 02/15/2015

Hm.  The Blue Dahlia.  Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, original screenplay by Raymond Chandler.  Sounds like noir gold, right?

Oddly, though, the convoluted plot, which apparently went through some changes through production, winds up being the kind of thing that modern noir satirists seeming send up.

Three navy buddies show back up at home in LA eager to get back to life as they knew it before the War.  Ladd’s Johnny Morrison though has a beautiful but straying wife (Doris Dowling) who is hooked up with the owner of a bar called The Blue Dahlia (Howard Da Silva).  And after a contentious interaction, the dame gets knocked off, see?  And it looks like Johnny done it.  Or maybe it was bar owner Eddie?  Or maybe Johnny’s PTSD-throttled pal Buzz (William Bendix)?  Or Veronica Lake, wife of bar owner Eddie?

You know, this is one of those noirs that I’ve intended to see for ages, recommended by a friend, I think, because of Ladd and Lake.  Lake is quite the babe.  But I’ve liked her a lot better in Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and I Married a Witch (1942).  I’ve got to wonder if This Gun for Hire (1942) or The Glass Key (1942), both of which she was also paired with Alan Ladd are better noirs.

Frankly, this one was kind of disappointing.


The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) movie poster

director John Huston
viewed: 02/15/2015

Was there ever a better American Hollywood filmmaker than John Huston?  John Huston didn’t quite measure up in the original auteur theory, but damned if it doesn’t seem like the most ripe peach for a hot debate on the topic.

A few years back, I began watching John Huston films in some earnest and I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if they aren’t almost all entirely brilliant.

The Asphalt Jungle wasn’t Huston’s first noir, but it has become one of the original or most classic heist films around.  Adapted from a novel by W.R. Burnett , it’s a gritty ensemble film, with a slew of great character actors and tremendously effective cinematography and framing.  Rock-frickin’-solid.

You know, I don’t have a lot else to say.  Great movie.

Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca (1940) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 02/14/2015

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, his first American film, his only film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards (though they failed to give him Best Director), was one of those big, famous films that I just plain had never seen.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

With characters like the enigmatic Rebecca, the tortured Maxim de Winter, or the obsessed housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca is one of the more iconic narratives and Gothic stories of the 20th century.  Starring Laurence Olivier (as de Winter), Joan Fontaine (as the nameless girl and narrator), and Judith Anderson as the eerie Danvers, it’s so strange.  If you’ve never seen it before, as I hadn’t, how imbued the whole thing is with cultural deja vu.  I was left trying to track where exactly all of my foreknowledge had come from.  The Celluloid Closet? The Carol Burnett Show parody?

Like Jane Eyre before it, it’s the story of a young woman out of her element, brought to a lush estate, haunted by the former mistress of the place.  In this case, the unnamed girl is brought by de Winter as his new bride, though he’s given to fits of mania when aroused of the thoughts of the former Mrs. de Winter, the lovely Rebecca.  Mrs. Danvers is equally obsessed, but the mystery herein is in exactly what way are these people all touched by the tragic death of the mysterious lady.

One of the biggest upshots of the film is that it was produced by David O. Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind (1939), and major figure in Hollywood.  His obsessions and auteurist visions and Hitchcock’s didn’t mesh as much as Hitchcock did with Daphne du Maurier, writer of the source novel, as well as the material for Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939) and his later film The Birds (1963).  In fact, the material seems like a fancy dress rehearsal for Hitchcock’s later classic Vertigo (1958), with the ghosts of lost wives and themes of obsession and madness.

It’s a pretty great film.  Having just caught a Joan Fontaine double feature a month or so back, it’s kind of interesting.  She’s very good here as the naive and beset young mistress of the house.  She would go on to win her own Oscar for Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) the next year, though that film (and that performance) aren’t nearly as good as here in Rebecca.

The Oscars have always been confounding.  But Hitchcock is almost always great.

12 Monkeys (1995)

12 Monkeys (1995) movie poster

director Terry Gilliam
viewed: 02/13/2015

Having turned Felix on to Terry Gilliam’s unusual brand of dystopic sci-fi with The Zero Theorem (2013), I thought he might enjoy this, the second film of Gilliam’s dystopia trilogy, his foray in Hollywood big time filmmaking, 1995’s 12 Monkeys.

“Inspired by” Chris Marker’s seminal 1962 avant-garde short film La Jetee12 Monkeys, as I’d recalled from the 1990’s was a pretty good movie.  What did I remember about it exactly?  Time travel, Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe, a young Brad Pitt (who got an Oscar nomination for his Supporting Role) and actually, not much else specifically.  The film has recently inspired a Syfy channel television show, further expansion of our world of all things science fiction obscure now mainstream pop culture.

First and foremost, the kids thought the movie was long.  It is 127 minutes long.  My experience is that time is truly relative in a film.  80 minutes can seem forever in some cases.  Clara was clearly bored through much of the film and Felix kept noting that it was “a long movie”.

Me, I enjoyed it again.  My complaint about The Zero Theorem had to do with the apparent budgetary limitations of the film.  And for 12 Monkeys, that isn’t something one will be thinking about.  It seems kind of intangible to put one’s finger on exactly what “looks cheap” and what “looks good”, but 12 Monkeys is a nice-looking film.  Gilliam frequently employs a skewed camera, like a fish-eye at a wonky angle that sets the whole shot into a cockeyed perspective.  It might not be his strongest characteristic, but otherwise, the film is pretty gorgeous.

Though it begins with a flashback to a scene in an airport where a young boy witnesses the shooting of a man with long hair in an ambiguous reflection, the film is set in a present of 2027, on an Earth despoiled by a virulent man-made disease that has made the planet’s surface uninhabitable by humans, now overrun by the animals formerly of the zoo.  Bruce Willis is a bald prisoner of this weirdo future state who is sent back into the past to try to uncover the origins of the disease so that it can be better rectified in the future.  He first ends up in 1990 and then in 1996, the year in which the disease is unleashed on the world by a madman.

The 1990’s were a great time for Bruce Willis. He made a number of excellent and commercially successful films with a variety of interesting directors (as well as a lot of crap too).  Brad Pitt was just emerging on the scene — kind of hard to remember when he wasn’t one of Hollywood’s biggest names, but this film was produced before he “broke big”.  He’s pretty good here.

I actually enjoyed the film.  Clara was clearly restless, and while Felix did enjoy it, I guess he found it more of a slog than the other film.  I guess I was a little surprised by their collective ambivalence, but maybe the film is perhaps a little more “adult” in the ways that it’s interesting…I don’t know.  I’d rate it as very good, but perhaps not quite great.  It is quite interesting from a perspective of current affairs with diseases like Ebola last year and measles this year and terrorism everywhere.

Friday the 13th Part III (1982)

Friday the 13th Part III (1982) movie poster

director Steve Miner
viewed: 02/13/2015

So, there it was, Friday the 13th, of February 2015.  What better day than to pick up where I’d last left off with the Friday the 13th film series?

It had been a couple years back that I began revisiting the slasher film in general and had watched the first two Friday the 13th films.  I had actually semi-intended to see through the whole Friday the 13th catalog, all 10 films that ran from 1980 to 2001.  But I was also interested in the broader reaches of the slasher film, too, so I tried going back to the earliest genre films there as well.  Only this proved too mountainous an undertaking as well as overall, a little too dull in the long run.

Now, most of the Friday the 13th films are on Netflix, with only #5 Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985), #9 Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993), and #10 Jason X (2001) unavailable on streaming.  Sadly, this presents the mild impediment of having to select films on DVD in order to watch them all consecutively, as opposed to the ever-looming availability of on demand streaming.

Friday the 13th Part III pics up quite readily enough where Friday the 13th Part 2 (1982) left off, with Part III reprising the end of Part 2 for its first five minutes or so.  Part III, like Part 2 is directed by Steve Miner, who would go on to House (1986), Soul Man (1986), Warlock (1989), My Father the Hero (1994), Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998) and Lake Placid (1999) among many other things.

It’s also in 3-D, which is its most notable characteristic.  And if you add in the hefty dash of camp with which Miner employs the 3-D effects, you capture the nature and spirit of this particular installment, which is a somewhat gung-ho enthusiasm for throwing things at the camera (literally), or just foregrounding an object like an eyeball, a yo-yo, pitchfork prongs, you name it.

I didn’t get to watch this in 3-D, but you can totally imagine what’s happening pretty easily.  One is not liable to miss the opportunities for guessing where the effects are employed.  I didn’t watch it in 3-D when I first saw it, at some point back in the day of the 1980’s, most likely on pay cable.  At the time, it just seemed awful.  Now, it seems perhaps intentionally funny rather than scary.

This is the film in which Jason, the killer app of killers, dons his iconic hockey mask, the image that would become shorthand for deathless slasher killer.  It’s really quite funny that it takes three movies to get to the mask, if you think about it.  That Jason wasn’t even the killer in the first film, and yet, here we have eternal movie iconography.