Citizenfour (2014)

B1OAn-5CcAAc2io.jpg largeReview by-Jarrett Leahy

“We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind.” I wish I could tell you this quotation is from the newest dystopian science fiction blockbuster about to hit the big screen, but, unfortunately, this alarming excerpt is the all too truthful and ominous warning given to us by the documentary Citizenfour. This year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, Citizenfour is a fascinating and frightful behind-the-scenes look at the largest leak of classified government secrets this country has ever experienced as well as an examination of the man responsible for it, Edward Snowden.
2_citizenfourMade in secrecy and directed by one of this generation’s most gifted documentarians, Laura Poitras, Citizenfour is a taut and edgy examination into the mass collection of digital information by the National Security Agency. Benefiting from unprecedented access, Poitras captures, in intimate detail, the events surrounding Edward Snowden’s disquieting revelations about the illegal actions being perpetrated by the U.S. intelligence community. Coming in at just under two hours, the film only gets more and more terrifying as the realization sets in of what exactly our government has been doing on a daily basis under the guise of the 2001 Patriot Act. Not only an account of the Snowden leak, the film also discloses insights from whistle-blower William Binney, a former thirty-year intelligence official in the NSA who resigned in October of 2001 after being outraged at the direction the NSA was taking and their justifications for unlawfully collecting massive amounts of information. A major critic of both the Bush and the Obama administrations and their unconstitutional spying tactics, Binney’s inclusion into Citizenfour adds yet another level of reputability to this documentary and the information it lays out for its viewer.
slide_322552_3074346_freeHowever, for many, the main attraction of Citizenfour is its look at Edward Snowden. A spineless traitor to some, a courageous whistleblower to others, Snowden has become a polarizing figure worldwide as the ramifications of his actions are still being realized nearly two years later. Utilizing a vast collection of encrypted communications, Poitras shows how Snowden secretly reached out to Glenn Greenwald, columnist for The Guardian newspaper, setting in motion the eventual meeting in a Hong Kong hotel room where, over the course of a week, Snowden methodically explains in great detail the sweeping collection of classified data, revealing a systematic abuse and hijacking of today’s internet and cell phone technology, by not only the U.S. government, but others around the world including Great Britain. The information disclosed also appears to indict a handful of high ranking NSA officials of perjuring themselves while testifying to Congress, as they repeatedly denied, under oath, committing the very acts the evidence in Snowden’s possession exposes.
NSA ProtestAs a whole, documentary films appear to be the last bastion of investigative reporting, as they are allotted the freedom to show us a more unvarnished look at our world. Unfortunately, the largest flaw I’ve found with many of the political documentaries I’ve watched over the years is, despite good intentions, many of these films are too skewed to one side of the argument or the other, which in turn, alienates half their viewership and muddles the message they are trying to convey. In comparison, the vital component to the overall impact of Citizenfour is its ability to remain neutral. Poitras is aware of the responsibility she has been given to share this story and recognizes that the revelations of Citizenfour are too important to get lost, overshadowed, or dismissed because of perceived political slant.
Laura-Poitras.-Photo-c-Olaf-BleckerAs our world becomes more and more interconnected and ever reliant upon technology, this is perhaps the most pressing issue for the future of our society. The decisions we make, or don’t make, will effect generations to come. While easily worthy of this year’s Academy Award, the lasting impact of Citizenfour will be what happens next. I don’t feel I’m being hyperbolic when I say Citizenfour is one of this country’s most important documentaries, for it lays out in great detail the unconstitutional activities our government has been perpetrating in the name of national security. This documentary will undoubtedly be the crowning achievement of Poitras’ legacy as a director, and it joins the likes of Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. as one of the seminal non-fiction films created by a female filmmaker.

Grade: A

Edited by-Michelle Zenor



Amateur Cinephile 2015 Oscar Predictions

As the Academy Awards are about to be announced, we thought it would fun to put together a prediction post for a few of the major awards of the evening.
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Best Picture:
      Jarrett                Jason                Michelle

Best Director:
Jarrett (Linklater) Jason (Linklater) Michelle (Linklater)

Best Actor:
Jarrett (Redmayne) Jason (Keaton) Michelle (Carell)

Best Actress:
Jarrett (Moore) Jason (Moore) Michelle (Moore)

Best Supporting Actor:
Jarrett (Simmons) Jason (Simmons) Michelle (Simmons)

Best Supporting Actress:
Jarrett (Arquette) Jason (Arquette) Michelle (Arquette)

Best Original Screenplay:
Jarrett                   Jason              Michelle

Best Adapted Screenplay:
    Jarrett                 Jason                Michelle

Best Cinematography:
        Jarrett              Jason               Michelle

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Movie Hall of Fame–CLASS OF 2015!!

List by-Jarrett Leahy

Happy Oscars Eve! As we get closer to tomorrow night’s show, it’s time once again to announce this year’s class of Amateur Cinephile Hall of Fame. Of all the sections of the site, the Hall of Fame is the most personal and fun for me. This is where I let out my inner movie geek and honor and celebrate films that continue to entertain and inspire, viewing after viewing. When I created last year’s inaugural class I stated that the first year would contain twelve films, and each subsequent year would be six honorees. The only eligibility requirement I established (other than greatness) was a ten-year wait after a film is released in theaters. I found this allowed a proper time period to truly judge a film’s greatness. I’m saddened to say that despite there being two films from 2005 that I feel are worthy candidates, neither could beat out my six selections for this year’s class, so there will be no 1st Ballot Hall of Fame selections this year. Well, enough with the introductions and rules, I hope you enjoy this year’s class…
2015 HOF

Boogie Nights (1997) Paul Thomas Anderson- Loosely inspired by real-life porn star John Holmes, Boogie Nights is the satirical examination of the rise and fall of 1970’s adult star, Dirk Diggler, played by Mark Wahlberg. When creating last year’s inaugural Hall of Fame class, no film’s omission pained me more than leaving P.T. Anderson’s adult industry opus off the list of inaugural honorees. My biggest solace was knowing this masterwork would be one of the crown jewels of this 2015 class. A multi-layered drama with a cast of future A-listers, Boogie Nights never ceases to entertain. Chock-full of drugs, violence, and gratuitous sex (it is about the porn industry after all) Boogie Nights officially ushered in the stellar career of one of this generation’s most gifted auteurs and remains the cinematic achievement in Wahlberg’s career. And who can forget the film’s final moment? “I’m a star, I’m a star, I’m I star, I’m a big, bright shining star.”

Chinatown (1974) Roman Polanski- For the casual movie watcher, the idea of finding enjoyment in rewatching movies over and over is a foreign concept. But for cinephiles, half the thrill of the hobby is finding a film that not only holds up to repeated viewings, but gives us new discoveries each time. Chinatown is the classic example of the film that gets better with each viewing. A private eye, murder mystery whose only crime is it came out the same year of The Godfather, Part II, Chinatown cemented the careers of stars Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and director Roman Polanski. Filled with twists, turns, and dead ends, the film remains 1970’s neo-noir classic. “Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Casino (1995) Martin Scorsese- A couple of months ago I texted Jason and asked, “What would you say if I told you that the newest Hall of Fame class is going to have a Scorsese film, and it’s going to be Casino and not Goodfellas?” He playfully responded, “While Goodfellas is a better film, Casino is great too, and it doesn’t surprise me because I know how much you love that darn film.” Jason was right on both accounts, Goodfellas is every bit of a masterpiece as Casino, and will likely be a member of a future HOF class, but if forced to choose one, I have to go with Casino for sheer rewatchability. One of the last truly great performances from acting legend Robert De Niro (along with another 1995 crime drama masterpiece, Heat), Casino is a poster boy for critical re-evaluation, as after initially receiving mixed reviews back in ’95, it has only grown in stature of the last twenty years. And unlike many, I find Sharon Stone’s crazy, coked-out portrayal of wife Ginger to be an impressively entertaining performance.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Michel Gondry- An innovatively original, science fiction, love story that asks the question, would you sacrifice the cherished memories of a lost love to avoid the pain of the bad ones? There are certain movies that upon viewing, you just know you are in the presence of greatness, and Eternal Sunshine was a film like that for me. Written by this generation’s most original screenplay auteur, Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Synecdoche, NY), and starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet at the height of their careers, Eternal Sunshine sheds light on the important role memories play in our everyday existence and explores just how far we’d go to save them. Barely missing the cut last year, Eternal Sunshine is the second film from 2004 to be inducted, joining Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset. Regardless of how sad Jim Carrey’s acting career may finish up, few can claim to have one of the best movies of the 1990’s (The Truman Show) and 2000’s (Eternal Sunshine) on their acting resume.

Notorious (1946) Alfred Hitchcock- Ask one hundred movie fans which Hitchcock film is their favorite, and I bet you’ll get at least fifteen different films in response. Ask me and the answer you’ll get is his 1946 mystery masterwork, Notorious, a post-WWII spy thriller set in Rio de Janeiro involving a secret society of Nazis and a mysterious radioactive substance. Left in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Notorious’ preposterously outlandish storyline would have been your average 1940’s B-movie thriller. Only Alfred Hitchcock could make it feel chillingly plausible. Blessed with two of Hollywood’s biggest legends, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, Notorious is credited for having one of the longest and most sensual kisses the censors of the time would allow. Filled with more classic camera shots than one could shake a stick at, few films have ended so perfectly than the shot of Claude Rains’ face as he quickly realizes his fate has been sealed. It gives me chills every time.

The Third Man (1949) Carol Reed- Set in Vienna just after the end of WWII, The Third Man is considered by many historians to be the best British film ever made, and I’m certainly not one to argue with that sentiment. Flawless black-and-white cinematography and a quirky, one-of-a-kind musical score make The Third Man a film noir to which all others will be compared. Even though the lead character, Holly Martins, is played by Joseph Cotton, the actor best recognized from The Third Man is legendary impresario Orson Welles. Welles will always be known as the creative genius responsible for the “The Greatest Movie of all Time.” But despite multiple viewings, my relationship with Citizen Kane is one built more out of reverential obligation than true love. For my humble tastes, Carol Reed’s The Third Man remains the Welles film I most treasure. Despite being on screen for a only fraction of the film, Welles’ Harry Lime has become one of cinema’s most captivating villains. Charmingly conniving with a sly, Cheshire cat grin, Lime seems like a guy who’d be a blast to hang out with—if he wasn’t wanted by the authorities for profiteering on the sales of diluted antibiotics.

That is the Amateur Cinephile Hall of Fame class of 2015. As I said last year, if you haven’t had the chance to see any of these films, I hope you take the time to seek them out, and then come back and let me know what you thought of them. I’d also love to hear what you think of this second Hall of Fame class. Feel free to leave any comments you may have or share a list of films that would be in your personal Movie Hall of Fame, and be sure to keep an eye out for the 2016 class next year during Oscar season.

Edited by-Michelle Zenor

Selma (2014)

10872818_516256005183410_6566810524942152925_oReview by-Jarrett Leahy

During the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s, there was no bigger name than Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A man of faith who preached nonviolent protest and civil disobedience, King’s dedication to the furtherance of African-American rights has yet to be surpassed. Set during the spring of 1965, Dr. King, fresh off the victory of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, turned his attention to another pressing issue plaguing his fellow African Americans. Desperate to reverse discriminatory laws that prevented Southern Blacks from exercising their constitutional right to vote, King and his associats chose Selma, a tiny town in rural Alabama, as the rallying point for a protest march to the Alabama capital of Montgomery. This set in motion the inevitable showdown with those opposed to King and his call for change.
-e1e62a5722648cd2The success of Selma sheds light yet again on the topic of female directors. Despite many great social changes over the last few decades, the lack of equal opportunity for women in film remains a concerning problem in this billion dollar industry. While I look forward to the day when female filmmakers are seen as equals and not treated as some sort of novelty or rarity, the only way to reach some semblance of egalitarianism is if their plight for equality is brought to the forefront, and the merits of their talents are celebrated. So please allow me then to introduce to you filmmaker Ava DuVernay. Born in August of 1972, this Los Angeles native made a splash on the Hollywood scene when her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere, earned her the Best Director prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, becoming the first African-American woman to receive such honors. Selma continues her string of firsts, as she became the first African-American woman to be a Golden Globe nominee in the Best Director category.
David Oyelowo Ava DuVernayAs her third feature, Selma was not originally slated to be directed by DuVernay. Instead, Lee Daniels of The Butler and Precious fame was hired to lead the production. It was only after Daniels stepped down that DuVernay was brought in to helm this biopic at the behest of the film’s leading man, David Oyelowo. Hampered by the fact that another studio had already secured the rights to Dr. King’s copyrighted speeches, DuVernay was forced to write different variations of King’s sermons. While it was initually a bit disheartening knowing King’s authorized words were not being spoken on screen, I must praise DuVernay’s remarkable ability to expertly capture the power and stirring eloquence Dr. King was known for. Never did I feel that the words spoken could not have come from Dr. King’s mouth. DuVernay also does a skillful job recreating that time period’s heightened sense of anxiety. Even with full knowledge of how many of the main events transpired, Selma manages to keep the viewer unnerved to the end.
la_ca_1021_selmaUnfortunately, the film is not free of controversy. Many critics and historians have raised concerns over DuVernay’s dipiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson, played by two-time Oscar nominee, Tom Wilkinson. Known as an ally to the Civil Rights movement, some were left questioning the filmmaker’s choice to characterize LBJ as an unwilling proponent to the Selma cause. If this proves to be true, I too question this unnecessary choice to sacrifice historical accuracy for extra drama. While I’m by no means naïve to the fact that movies take creative liberties with their depictions, there is, far and away, enough melodramatic tension in this gripping story without having to drum up historical falsities. DuVernay should have known better.
SELMAWhen the 2015 Oscar nominations were announced, as with most years, a handful of omissions or “snubs” were identified and debated. Among those passed over, the most conspicuous is by far David Oyelowo. An English actor and graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Oyelowo saw Selma as his chance to shine and reportedly fought for over seven years to win the role of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This passionate dedication to the part comes across on screen tenfold. While the physical resemblance is quite striking, it’s Oyelowo’s awe-inspiring ability to capture the mannerisms, aura, and overall presence of this powerful figure in our country’s history that makes this performance one for the record books. Despite the lack of access to King’s exact speeches, Oyelowo’s powerful articulation of Dr. King’s message offers the viewer a stirring portrayal that avoids becoming too reverential and instead brings a level of humanity to such an almost mythical public figure. As the significance of Oyelowo’s omission from the Best Actor category began to truly set in, many investigated, looking for possible explanations as to how and why such a thing could happen. It was later reported that Paramount, the studio behind Selma, failed to send “screeners” of the film to many of the Academy voters before they had to select their nominations. This glaring error on the studio’s part is the only possible explanation I can come up with for Oyelowo being left off the nomination list, for there are not five better performances in 2014.
Selma-FilmOverall, my appreciation for Selma is a bit more tempered in comparison to some others who have seen it. The issues surrounding the story’s depiction of President Johnson, the lack of Martin Luther King’s true speeches, and handful of unusual cinematography choices were difficult to completely ignore and kept the film from reaching the lofty status some have bestowed upon it. But that’s not to say I’m not impressed with what Ava DuVernay was able to create. Her film dramatically captures the uncertainty and emotional furor of that time period, displaying on screen the reasons why so many African Americans, and whites, were compelled to fight for change. Selma also offers a younger generation of African-American youth a glimpse at the sacrifices it took from everyday citizens to bring about the changes they readily enjoy today. But, despite the Oscar snub, for all intents and purposes, Selma is a Best Actor movie, or a film where the actor’s performance outshines or overpowers the overall film. As time goes on, I foresee Selma settling into some version of relative obscurity, for other than Oyelowo’s performance, there is, unfortunately, nothing all together spectacular to set Selma apart from the recent glut of biopics and keep it at the forefront of critics and fans’ consciousness.

Grade: B

Edited by-Michelle Zenor

2014 Top 10 Films

List by-Jarrett Leahy

Another year in movies has come and gone, and with award season in full swing, it’s time to finally choose my Top 10 Films for 2014. For many movie fans/cinephiles, creating an end-of-year Best Of List is a diverting event in which hours are spent agonizing over which movies are worthy of making the cut and which aren’t. As many of us know though, Top 10 Lists are simply a personal snapshot of a movie year, and as time passes, feelings about films can and do change, for the better and worse. For instance, taking a look at my list for last year, I’m shocked to see that I had not included Noah Baumbach’s sublime indie, Frances Ha, which easily should be in the Top 5. However, looking back on the first time I watched the movie, I remember being intrigued but not wowed. It was only after many re-watches that I completely fell in love with Frances Ha, long after 2013 Top 10 List was finalized.

I tried to postpone the creation of this post for as long as possible, hoping the opportunity to see a few late stragglers would arise. But as January now comes to an end, it has become quite apparent that I can’t delay any longer. And as much as it pains me to create this list without seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, it’s obvious that my “beloved East Texas” will not offer the opportunity to view one of my favorite director’s latest creation any time soon. So I shall just have accept that Top 10 lists are never set in stone, and Inherent Vice just might be my Frances Ha for 2014…if I’m lucky 😉 So here we go…

HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Drop; Nightcrawler; Edge of Tomorrow; St. Vincent; How To Train Your Dragon 2; X-Men: Days of Future Past; Whiplash; The One I Love; The Raid 2; Under the Skin

10. The Double
– Playing both Simon and his doppelganger James, Jesse Eisenberg skillfully floats from one persona to the other, highlighting his two principal personae, socially awkward wimp and pompous jerk. Joining Eisenberg is Mia Wasikowska, who continues to impress in her blossoming young career. While it appears I’m in the minority on The Double, I simply love what Richard Ayoade was able to create with this blackly comedic ode to Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece, Brazil.

9. Only Lovers Left Alive– Offering two of 2014’s coolest performances, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play vampire soul mates to perfection. A hipster alternative to those who tend to shy away from more traditional vampire films, Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the most mainstream creations of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, a founding father of independent cinema.

8. Enemy– For many, Nightcrawler was Jake Gyllenhaal’s best film of 2014. While I too enjoyed Nightcrawler (as seen by its inclusion in my Honorable Mention list), the Gyllenhaal film that left me completely spellbound is this Denis Villeneuve creation. One of the more polarizing films of 2014, I found Enemy to be a hypnotically intoxicating drama. Admittedly, some have had real issue with Villeneuve’s choice for the ending, and others don’t like the film’s ambiguity, but for me, I love how Enemy kept me guessing and never fully revealed all its secrets.

7. Gone Girl– While I’ll be curious to see how well Gone Girl ages and whether it holds up to re-watches (a sign of a truly great film), there’s little denying that upon initial viewing, David Fincher created a pulp, tour de force that can only be described as deliciously naughty. I’m happy that Julianne Moore is getting so much Oscar buzz for her role in Still Alice, but I must confess Rosamund Pike’s sociopathic portrayal of Amy Dunne will always be the best female performance of the year.

6. Life Itself (2014 BEST DOCUMENTARY)– Being limited to only ten spots makes it very difficult to justify putting a documentary on an end-of-year Top 10 list; doing so is a testament to how much affection I have for Steve James’ poignant tribute to the most beloved film critic/historian we will ever have. A true fan of cinema, I really believe Roger would be pleased with how James put together this documentary, as Life Itself does an admirable job highlighting the good times and rougher moments of this talented Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s journey, including his struggles battling cancer. I’ve experienced Life Itself twice, and it left me misty-eyed both times.

5. Ida (2014 BEST FOREIGN FILM)– A story of a novitiate whose discovery of a long-lost aunt uncovers harrowing family secrets, Ida is blessed with two impressive performances from Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska, a novice who amazingly had never acted before her portrayal of Anna. By far the most breathtaking cinematography of any film from 2014, Pawel Pawlikowski’s dark and painfully moving masterwork left me speechless.

4. Calvary -When a parishioner threatens to kill Father James at week’s end, the stoic priest must decide if the impending danger is real or just a meritless threat. John Michael McDonagh’s black comedy is another that left me speechless and remained just as moving upon second viewing. It’s a crying shame that Brendan Gleeson didn’t receive more critical praise for this career-defining portrayal, and I personally want to send some love out to Kelly Reilly, who is quickly moving up my list of favorite actresses.

3. Birdman– Getting the chance to revisit Birdman a few weeks ago confirmed what I (and so many others) had originally assessed–Birdman is an amazing piece of cinema. Any other year, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s beautiful, avant-garde masterpiece would be at the top of this list, and the fact that it isn’t makes me truly excited about what 2014 has given me. All the praise Michael Keaton has received is well deserved, but my favorite performance is that of Edward Norton, and it kills me that he won’t win this year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar (early congrats J.K. Simmons).

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel– Lavishly sumptuous with a perfect cast, The Grand Budapest Hotel highlights the comedic talents of Ralph Fiennes.  After my initial viewing I gave The Grand Budapest Hotel a B+, which is a solid rating, but by no means a grade that screams number two film for the year. However, after FOUR additional viewings, each one more exuberantly captivating then the last, Wes Anderson’s latest masterful concoction steadily climbed my list and finally landed at this runner-up position. And even more personally impressive, The Grand Budapest Hotel dethroned Rushmore as my favorite Anderson film. “Take your hands off my Lobby Boy!”

1. Boyhood– A twelve-year project that allows us to watch a young boy (and girl) grow before our eyes, Boyhood is a true cinematic achievement that delivers a time capsule of this post 9/11 period of explosive cultural and technological changes. Some may find this choice to be obvious and slightly anti-climactic, but after walking out of the theater back in August, I knew there would be little chance for any other film to take the number one spot from Richard Linklater’s unpretentiously poignant and sublime look at growing up. Boyhood is the “coming of age” film to which all others will now be compared. This makes back-to-back #1 movies for Linklater, joining Before Midnight in that honor.

Here’s hoping 2015 is a great year in movies for you all. Happy viewing…-JL