Three Films for the New Year

Three mediocre films this week. I’ll review them briefly so you can spend the new year not going to see them.


This is a documentary about Edward Snowden and the efforts he made in order to make the world aware of the clandestine intelligence and surveillance activities of the United States government.

His motives appear to be sincere and he comes off as a determined patriot. But although he identifies himself as “neither traitor nor hero; I’m an American”, many of his countrymen think of him as a traitor.

The film follows him from his initial contacts with journalist Glenn Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and the man from The Guardian newspaper, Ewen MacAskill.

He rendezvous with them in a hotel room in Hong Kong, but instead of discussing the “juicy tidbits” and shocking revelations contained in the documents, he describes in mind-numbing detail the technological machinations that enabled him to secure them. And the camera remains with him in the hotel room as he waits for his colleagues to fly back and forth across the world and get his message out.

The rest of his story, the 39 days of waiting in the Moscow airport for the Russian government to approve his request for asylum and the events that followed, is told mostly in voice-over. But at the end, through the kitchen window of his Moscow apartment you catch a glimpse of his long-time girlfriend, who joined him in exile. It’s the only personal shot that gives you a sense of Snowden as a real human being.

Citizenfour is an interesting story told blandly and with little drama. Which is probably the way a story as significant as this one should be told. But it makes for a helluva dreary movie.

St. Vincent

St. Vincent isn’t really a terrible movie. After all, how bad could a movie be that has Bill Murray in it?

This one, however, has all the “Bill Murray shticks” we’ve seen a thousand times, and the story is a predictable rehash of “lonely boy being mentored by an irascible, irresponsible, retired reprobate” who is hired to “babysit” him by his harassed, newly divorced mother, Melissa McCarthy.

There are the requisite scenes of drinking, sex, and visits to the race track before Murray abandons his shabby lifestyle and becomes a mensch that even a mother could love. And the boy, of course, thinks of him as a saint. Very very gooey.

Into the Woods

Nobody is indifferent to Stephen Sondheim. You either love him or you hate him. In his new sci-fi fantasy fairy tale, Into the Woods, everybody sings his songs except the audience. There’s not one that you can remember the tune to, let alone the words. For my part, his only memorable song is “Send in the Clowns”
from A Little Night Music.

In Into the Woods he and James Lapine make a mishmash of the tales of the brothers Grimm. The stories were grim when they were originally published in 1812 and made even grimmer by the Sondheim-¬Lapine musical on Broadway in 1986. Lapine wrote the screenplay for the film (directed flamboyantly by Rob Marshall) that opened this Christmas. Lapine transmogrified it in accordance with directives from Disney, the studio that produced it.

Disney objected to the implied sexual relationships between Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and the Wolf (Johnny Depp) and Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt). The studio also didn’t like the excessive violence and the grisly deaths of so many of the principals. But many of them died anyway, even though they were played by actors who deserved better.

Among the cast were Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Christine Baranski as Cinderella’s stepmother, James Corden as the Baker, MacKenzie Mauzy as Rapunzel, Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince, Daniel Huttlestone as Jack (of Beanstalk fame), and Tracey Ullman as his mother. And whirring around stirring the plot was The Witch, an over-the-top Meryl Streep.

The various stories intertwined in the woods, which were creepy, and revolved around The Witch, who was prone to offering curses and making inexplicable demands.

Besides the fact that the film was more than two hours long, it disintegrated into a dark morality play in the second half, punishing everyone for their perceived wicked actions or intentions. Not a fairy tale at all. Children would find it grim, not Grimm.

All these films are currently playing in theaters around Los Angeles.

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