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Fri. - February 27 - 6:45 pm SSat. - February 28 - 4:15 - 6:45 pmSSun. - March 1 - 5:00 pm SMon. - March 2 - 7:15 pm STues. - March 3 - Not ShowingWed. - March 4 - 7:15 pm SThurs. - March 5 - Not Showing
SYNOPSIS: In January 2013, Laura Poitras received an encrypted e-mail from a stranger who called himself Citizen Four. In it, he offered her inside information about illegal wiretapping practices of the NSA and other intelligence agencies. Poitras had already been working for several years on a film about monitoring programs in the US, the result of the September 11 attacks. In June 2013, accompanied by investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill, she went to Hong Kong with her camera for the first meeting with the stranger, who identified himself as Edward Snowden. Several other meetings followed. The recordings gained from the meetings form the basis of the film.
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Though superlatives can mischaracterize any movie’s qualities, it is not an overstatement, I think, to call “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’ film about Edward Snowden, the movie of the century (to date).
That statement is meant, first off, to suggest certain things about its relation to our collective past, present and future. No film so boldly X-rays certain crucial changes wrought upon the world, and especially America and its government, by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. No film so demands to be seen by every sentient person who values his or her own freedom and privacy. No film so clearly implies actions that need to be taken to prevent the 21st century from turning into an Orwellian nightmare in which technologically-enabled tyranny is absolute and true political liberty, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent.
This is not to say that “Citizenfour” is a perfect film, if anyone believes that such a thing exists. On the contrary, perhaps more than any documentary in history, it invites endless questions about what Poitras chose to put in and leave out, to emphasize and to elide. But such debates are only a secondary–if very fascinating–aspect of a broader national and international discussion that the film deserves to start. They do nothing to diminish its colossal importance.
Indeed, no film has ever been historic in quite the way this one is, since it tells a story in which the filmmaker and her work play a crucial part. It’s as if Daniel Ellsberg had a friend with a movie camera who filmed his disclosure of the Pentagon Papers every step of the way. Or if the Watergate burglars had taken along a filmmaker who shot their crimes and the cover-up that followed. Except that the issues “Citizenfour” deals with are, arguably, a thousand times more potent than Vietnam or Watergate.
The part of the film that shows Edward Snowden being interviewed in Hong Kong in June of 2013 (doesn’t it seem longer ago?) occupies roughly an hour in the middle of its slightly less than two-hour length. The film begins, eerily, like a latter-day “Parallax View,” with shots from a car moving through a dark traffic tunnel (in Hong Kong, it turns out) as Poitras reads emails she received from the then-anonymous Snowden. One says that he didn’t choose her for the work she is going to do with him; she made the choice through the films she previously made. A title says that after 2006 (when her Iraq film “My Country, My Country” came out) she was placed on a secret government watch list and thereafter stopped and searched dozens of times as she tried to enter the U.S. This harassment, she notes, prompted her to move to Berlin.
Although she doesn’t say it, Poitras was at work on a film about government surveillance before she first heard from Snowden, and some of that footage comprises much of the first half-hour of “Citizenfour.” We see journalist Glenn Greenwald, who will become part of the Snowden story, working at his home in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. We see Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) Keith Alexander both lying to Congress–presumably under oath–about the extent of the government’s spying on American citizens.
But perhaps the most important part of this de facto prologue concerns William Binney, a government intelligence analyst who turned whistleblower to protest abuses he saw taking place in the government’s actions after 9/11. For his troubles, Binney was raided by FBI agents who stormed into his house with guns drawn. The examples of Binney and others like him of course indicate the ridiculousness of the claim–made by President Obama and others in the government and media–that everything would have been fine if Snowden had gone through “proper channels” to make his revelations to the American public.
After contacting Poitras via encrypted email, and later asking her to involve Greenwald, the still nameless Snowden–“citizenfour” is the first alias he uses–asks the two to go to New York and await further instructions. He then tells them to meet him in Hong Kong (which he has chosen thinking it may be further from the eyes of U.S. intelligence than other places).
In my view, the film’s single biggest flaw lies in not saying at this point that Snowden sent Poitras and Greenwald massive numbers of secret files concerning government surveillance, which they were able to peruse before meeting him. In any case, these materials formed the basis of stories the two wrote from Hong Kong, Greenwald for The Guardian, Poitras for The Washington Post. (An account of what Snowden sent the journalists can be found in Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide,” which deserves to be read in tandem with “Citizenfour.”)
We do not see Poitras and Greenwald meeting Snowden in the lobby of Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel (Greenwald recalled they were stunned at how young he was), but within minutes of arriving in Snowden’s room Poitras has set up here camera and begun filming. True to her cinema verite ethos, the filmmaker mostly remains unseen and unheard, leaving the questioning to Greenwald, and, beginning on the second day, another reporter from The Guardian, Ewan MacAskill.
The hour we spend with Snowden and company is matter-of-fact and in some ways undramatic, yet it is one of the most absorbing things I’ve ever seen in a film. (Having now watched the movie three times, I found this segment even more riveting on the third viewing than on the first.) What grabs you here is not, of course, the contents of Snowden’s revelations, which have been widely reported. Rather, it’s the sense of watching a small group of individuals embarked on an enterprise that they know is of tremendous historical import, yet also potentially dangerous and with no guaranteed outcome. In such a context, every small gesture, pause and decision can seem to take on great meaning, creating a constant sense of tension and discovery.
Then there is the presence of Snowden. In the early stories Greenwald begins filing from Hong Kong, which create an immediate international sensation, he doesn’t identify his source, in part because Snowden says he wants the attention to go to the explosive materials he’s providing rather than to himself. Yet the attention must soon enough shift to him because, as he made clear to Poitras early on, he intends to identify himself publicly and take whatever consequences may come, hoping he will thereby inspire others to do the same. So, a few days into their meetings, Poitras films a 12-minute interview with him, which is released to the media, and almost instantly Snowden’s face and name are known all over the globe.
Through all of this, the man himself remains a picture of remarkable calm, poise and good spirits. In his book Greenwald says he was so excited in Hong Kong that he couldn’t sleep more than two hours per night, and thus could only marvel at Snowden’s ability to turn in at 10 p.m. for exactly seven and a half hours of sleep.
Such details are significant because, in one sense, the real drama in “Citizenfour”–and it’s something no book could give us–lies in our observing Snowden and coming to our own conclusions about his character and motives. No doubt the movie will inspire various reactions. For myself, I take the guy at face value. He seems eminently sane and decent, a good guy, smart, articulate, good-humored and, given the circumstances he’s brought upon himself, incredibly courageous.
As for his motives, it befits his status as a millennial that he’s passionate about the potential of the Internet and the dangers of its abuse. Like Greenwald and Poitras, he is also alarmed at the power the government has accumulated to spy on its own citizenry virtually without limits or controls, and without the country’s knowledge. He says, in his usual rather formal way of speaking: “I am more willing to risk imprisonment, or any other negative outcome personally, than I am to risk the curtailment of my intellectual freedom and that of those around me, whom I care for equally as I do for myself.”
After eight days, Snowden leaves the hotel with the help of Chinese human rights lawyers and decamps to a U.N. facility and then a safe house. We see him thereafter in only two scenes somewhat later in Moscow, whence he is spirited with the help of WikiLeaks, and where the government eventually grants him one year of political asylum.
In the film’s last half-hour, Poitras gives us an almost impressionistic chronicle of events flowing from Snowden’s revelations, including Greenwald in Brazil talking with reporters and government people about U.S. spying; William Binney and others testifying on the same subject in Europe; lawyers meeting pro bono to discuss legal strategy for Snowden; the bizarre detention of Greenwald’s partner in London and their reunion in Rio.
And then there’s the film’s final scene, in Moscow, where Snowden and Greenwald write notes on paper in order to avoid talking about another, newer whistle-blower. We can’t see what they’re talking about but Snowden’s astonishment speaks volumes. The scene is sure to cause puzzlement and perhaps controversy, yet I found it really wonderful, poetically mysterious yet also returning us to Snowden’s clearly stated desire to inspire others to follow in his footsteps.
No movie has ever been more justified in including “citizen” in its title, and I’m not speaking of just the acts of heroic citizenship by Snowden, which deserve to be studied and emulated for centuries. The bleakest implication of the film is that every government soon swallows up those who enter it and squelches the impulse for meaningful dissent. Why has no member of Congress risen to defend Snowden, who is a hero to much of the country and will be more so once this film is widely seen? Why have the governments of Germany and Brazil, two powerful nations outraged by Snowden’s revelations, not offered him asylum?
Changing such things, the film very clearly implies, will depend on citizens willing to challenge the power of their governments. Throughout their activities, Snowden, Greenwald and Poitras took a gamble on practicing exactly the kind of transparency and straightforwardness in their work that they want to see in the government. The idea being that the more in the public eye they were, the more protected from nefarious doings by the government. It has worked, obviously…but only to a point. Snowden’s revelations got out, but what has become of them? It is to be hoped that “Citizenfour”–as it rolls out into theaters in the next months, screens on HBO and goes to the Oscars–will reignite debate and action on all the appropriate fronts.
Thurs. - February 26 - Not ShowingFri. - February 27 - 6:30 / 8:30 pm ASat. - February 28 - 4:00 - 6:30 - 8:45 pmASun. - March 1 - 4:30 - 7:00 pm AMon. - March 2 - 7:00 pm ATues. - March 3 - 7:00 pm AWed. - March 4 - 7:00 pm AThurs. - March 5 - 7:00 pm A
SYNOPSIS: Alice Howland, happily married with three grown children, is a renowned linguistics professor who starts to forget words. When she receives a diagnosis of Early-Onset Alzheimer's Disease, Alice and her family find their bonds thoroughly tested. Her struggle to stay connected to who she once was is frightening, heartbreaking, and inspiring.
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With a combination of power and grace, Julianne Moore elevates “Still Alice” above its made-for-cable-television trappings, and delivers one of the more memorable performances of her career.
This is no small feat, given the depth and breadth of Moore’s filmography and her consistent ability to produce great work, from playing a porn star in “Boogie Nights” to an eccentric artist in “The Big Lebowski” to a frustrated housewife in “Far From Heaven” to her dead-on portrayal of Sarah Palin in HBO’s “Game Change.” She’s such a smart, clever and instinctive actress that she never hits a false note. She finds unexpected avenues into her character, a challenging role that requires her to show a mental deterioration that’s both gradual and inherently internal.
Thankfully, “Still Alice” doesn’t deify the woman she plays: Dr. Alice Howland, an esteemed linguistics professor at Columbia University who finds she’s suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Co-directors and writers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland don’t shy away from the steady and terrifying way the disease can take hold of a person and strip away her ability to communicate and connect with the outside world. But they also don’t tell this story with much nuance or artistry in adapting Lisa Genova’s novel.
This is especially true when comparing “Still Alice” to a couple of recent films that have tackled the same territory: Sarah Polley’s haunting “Away From Her” and Michael Haneke’s unflinching “Amour.” The flat lighting, the frequent use of maudlin music, a heavy reliance on medium shots and some awkward cutaways for reactions all contribute to the sensation of watching a rather workmanlike production better suited to the small screen. But the film’s heart is in the right place, and the message matters, and it surely will resonate with the millions of people whose loved ones have suffered from this cruel disease.
At the film’s start, though, Alice has everything. It’s her 50th birthday, and she’s celebrating at a chic New York restaurant with her adoring family. Her husband (Alec Baldwin), who’s also an academic, toasts her as the most beautiful, intelligent person he’s ever known. She’s stylish, accomplished, happy and financially secure. She radiates confidence and competence at all times. But soon, words–which have fascinated her throughout her life and provided the basis for her career–begin to elude her. She becomes disoriented on her daily jog around campus. She starts losing items around the house and forgetting scheduled events.
A visit to a neurologist reveals that Alice has a rare form of Alzheimer’s, and that it’s genetic. Fascinatingly, because she is such an intellectual, she’s been able to play tricks on her brain and find shortcuts to mask her illness. But in no time, the bottom drops out from underneath her, and it’s heartbreaking to watch. Moore plays it small for the most part, conveying fear with her eyes or slight shifts in the tone of her voice, so the moments when her character understandably snaps in panic really stand out in contrast.
The fact that a woman who’s an expert in linguistics has trouble articulating herself may seem like an obvious device, but it also adds to the film’s sense of sadness and frustration, because Alice knows all too well the power of self-expression. “Still Alice” is about how she reacts to her own deterioration–how she constantly reassesses it and figures out how to cope. She doesn’t always do it with quiet dignity, which is refreshing; sometimes she even uses the disease to manipulate those around her or get out of a social occasion she’d rather avoid.
But it’s also about how her family reacts in unexpected ways. Her eldest daughter, Anna (a stiff Kate Bosworth), a prim and perfectly coifed lawyer who married well, doesn’t handle Alice’s illness as well as her free-spirited youngest daughter, Lydia (an excellent Kristen Stewart), who’s moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming an actress. (The middle child, a son played by Hunter Parrish, is also on the verge of his own impressive career as a doctor).
Adding to the poignancy is the fact that Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS in 2011 after a decade of making independent films with his partner, Westmoreland, including the 2006 hit “Quinceanera.” Surely, he is all too familiar with the struggle of remaining creative and vital. The fact that this is a personal story, earnestly told and filled with hope, ultimately is what shines through with great clarity.
Thurs. - February 26 - Not ShowingFri. - February 27 - 9:00 pm SSat. - February 28 - 9:00 pmSSun. - March 1 - 7:15 pm SMon. - March 2 - Not ShowingTues. - March 3 - 7:15 pm SWed. - March 4 - Not ShowingThurs. - March 5 - 7:15 pm S
SYNOPSIS: An immigrant and his family strive to maintain their burgeoning business while contending with urban violence and corruption during a particularly harsh New York City winter in 1981. Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac star in this urban drama from writer/producer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All is Lost)
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There's a kind of 1970s American movie that's catnip to directors who grew up in the '80s and '90s while watching that sort of movie on cable TV and home video. It's visually and thematically dark, and very male. It has Rembrandt lighting and a palette dominated by paper-bag brown, burnt yellow, leprous emerald, and dirty cream. There's talk of honor and integrity and tradition, of old ways passing and a meaner, pettier, more chaotic, new way taking its place. It is an organized crime film, or a family drama, or a big city nightmare, or all three things at once. Nobody in it is conventionally likable. The hero, despite a certain reticence about selling what's left of his soul, soon figures out that to get ahead in this world, you have to be cold and calculating, and divest yourself of illusions. "A Most Violent Year," a 1981 New York period piece written and directed by J.C. Chandor ("All is Lost," "Margin Call"), is that kind of movie. Oh, boy, is it that kind of movie. It's quite good, for what it is. But it's that "for what it is" part that proves slightly exasperating.
Oscar Isaac plays the hero, Abel Morales, who runs a heat oil company that he took over from his father-in-law. He just bought a port property and has a month to cobble together enough investors to pay for it in full, otherwise he'll have to eat the down payment and go broke. It's a major gamble that could pay off big if a few key things go right for him, but in this kind of movie, the "if"s rarely break the hero's way. He is under investigation for business, um, irregularities; the D.A. (David Oyelowo of "Selma") is riding him like an old dray horse. As if that's not enough pressure, Abel's company is under pressure from competitors. Worse, somebody's started hijacking his trucks: this happens in the opening sequence as he and his lawyer, Andrew (Albert Brooks, sly and smart and nearly unrecognizable, as is often the case these days), are delivering the down payment.
We don't know who's behind the violence against Abel's company. We just know that he's scrambling to put this deal together and only has a month to do it, and that his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, doing a credible Brooklyn accent), is not making things any easier for him. She's a tough-as-nails ally and confidant ("My husband is an honest man, don't mistake his honesty for weakness," she tells another character), as well as a wily bookkeeper. But she's also a borderline Lady Macbeth figure who often chides her husband for not being as hard as he should be, because this is a hard, shadowy world, and these are mean streets. The movie follows Abel and/or Anna as they try to get money to save their collective enterprise. Probably a third of the tale occurs during conversations between scowling men seated across tables in dimly-lit rooms. This is mesmerizing, up to a point, thanks to Isaac's cinematically borrowed but still palpable magnetism and the coiled intensity of the supporting players, and from cinematographer Bradford Young's lighting, which imparts a purgatorial gloom to conversations about capital and interest, respect and disrespect.
The film's title refers to an actual, statistical designation: 1981 was the most violent year in New York City history up till that point, with 1,841 homicides (the number climbed through 1991 before starting to level off). Coupled with the retro look and rhythm and subject matter—the film is a dirty business movie, a crime film, a crusading New York DA story, and a visual homage to cinematographer Gordon Willis ("The Godfather," "The Conversation"), and a lot of other '70s-film signifiers as well—it all feels like a romanticization of a past which, through a twenty-teens, American middle-class filmmaker's eyes, looks like a Brigadoon of urban ethnic machismo. The movie is so funereal that at times it plays like a memorial service, not just for a particular kind of American drama, but for the male heroes who populated them: a snapshot of one of the last cultural moments when American men could be Men, in that old fashioned, two-fisted, furrowed-brow-and-whispered-threats sort of way.
The American director James Gray also has made this kind of sideways homage, channeling the gangster pictures of Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola and the big city thrillers of Sidney Lumet ("Serpico"), with a more meditative pace. Sections of this movie are reminiscent of Gray's "The Yards," which was equal parts "On the Waterfront" and "The Godfather," and his followup, the gangster picture/undercover cop thriller "We Own the Night" (which, like "A Most Violent Year," is fitfully excellent, but sometimes tries too hard to be a K-Tel Greatest '70s Macho Movie Hits album).
Chandor's film ultimately has its own vibe, though, which is no small feat considering the heavy legacy it bears. The look and performances carry it. There's outstanding use of New York locations, some cunningly staged moments of suspense and violence, and smart deployment of TV newscasts as a mostly unremarked-upon Greek chorus. Even when the financial conversations and fine-grained discussion of traditions and codes become repetitive, and even though Chastain is slightly underused, "A Most Violent Year" makes an impression.
It's still not the best tribute to American New Wave cinema in theaters this year: that would be "Inherent Vice," a meandering yet vibrant piece that seems to have fully absorbed all the different bits of popular art that fed its writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's aesthetic, and that seems to have nothing to prove and is content to simply be. Gray's "Godfather II" inspired "The Immigrant" is also excellent, and likewise steeped in post-Vietnam America's cinema traditions, although it's gentler, told from a female perspective, and set more deeply in the past. Chandor, in contrast, doesn't achieve the same imaginative freedom in "A Most Violent Year," but he's a potentially major talent, emphasis on potentially. If this movie comes on television, you'll watch most of it, though there's a good chance that at certain points you'll wish you were watching the films that inspired it.
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