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Election Day Movies: Presidents

Posted on November 8, 2016 at 7:00 am

After you vote, take a break from red and blue maps to enjoy some of the portrayals of real US Presidents on screen.

Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for Lincoln.  I’ve already written about some of the many other movie versions of Lincoln’s life.  “Wilson” stars Oscar nominee Alexander Knox in a dignified tribute to the 29th President. Gary Sinese gave a powerful performance in the HBO movie, Truman. Rough Riders has Tom Berenger as Theodore Roosevelt, leading Cuban rebels against Spain.

Perhaps the most fanciful portrayal of a real US President is “The Remarkable Andrew,” with William Holden as an honorable accountant who discovers a discrepancy in the town books and is visited by the ghost of his favorite President, Andrew Jackson (Brian Donlevy), who provides guidance and support.

President Kennedy’s WWII experience was the subject of PT 109, starring Cliff Robertson.  He was also the subject of 13 Days, about the Cuban missile crisis.  Oliver Stone has directed movies about Nixon, played by Anthony Hopkins (who also played a memorably cagy John Quincy Adams in “Amistad”), and George W. Bush, played by Josh Brolin.  President Nixon has been portrayed in a number of other films, from the acclaimed Frost/Nixon to the humorous but touching Elvis and Nixon and the wild satire Dick.  And of course he is the subject of the Oscar-winning Best Picture All the President’s Men, though he is only glimpsed in archival footage.

The Butler is based on the true story of a man who worked in the White House for eight Presidents, and we see everyone from Eisenhower to Reagan portrayed in the film. Of course Reagan himself was an actor before he went into politics. His best films include “King’s Row” (his own favorite), “Hellcats of the Navy” (co-starring with Nancy Reagan), and, yes, “Bedtime for Bonzo.”

There are some great President movies made for television: Gary Sinese gave a superb performance in Truman and Bryan Cranston was outstanding in the role he originated on Broadway, Lyndon Johnson in All the Way.

President and Mrs. Obama were portrayed in a film about their first date this year, Southside With You. (For the real story of what happened that night, see this adorable column by my dad, who was there.)  “Barry,” another movie about Barack Obama’s early years, will be out soon.

According to TIME Magazine, Lincoln has been portrayed most frequently on screen but perhaps the President most memorable on film is Franklin Roosevelt, the only man to be elected four times, with Sunrise At Campobello, Eleanor and Franklin and its sequel, Warm Springs, Hyde Park on Hudson, and, of course, Annie!  (TIME notes that the only US President never to show up as a character in a movie is Warren G. Harding.)

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New Book: The Oliver Stone Experience

Posted on September 19, 2016 at 3:54 pm

From “Scarface,” “Midnight Express,” Natural Born Killers,” “Wall Street,” “JFK,” “Nixon,” “W,” and “Platoon” to this month’s release, “Snowden.” Oliver Stone has been one of the most provocative writers and directors in movie history. Also one of its most lauded, with awards and nominations that include three Oscars in two separate categories: Best Adapted Screenplay (“Midnight Express”), and Best Director (“Born on the Fourth of July” and “Platoon”).

A new book, The Oliver Stone Experience, is part memoir, part critical assessment of Stone’s work over three decades. Working with critic Matt Zoller Seitz, Stone shares memories of serving in the Vietnam war, his childhood, his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, and his continual struggle to reinvent himself as an artist. The book includes never-before-seen material that dates back to Stone’s childhood in the 1950s, personal snapshots, private correspondence, annotated script pages and storyboards, and behind-the-scenes photography.

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Snowden

Posted on September 15, 2016 at 5:51 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tension and peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 16, 2016

Copyright Endgame Entertainment 2016
Copyright Endgame Entertainment 2016
Who better to take on the story of Edward Snowden than cinema-of-paranoia director Oliver Stone? Well, Laura Poitras, who directed the documentary about Snowden, “Citizenfour,” and who is portrayed in this film by Melissa Leo. As is usually the case, the documentary is the better film. But Stone’s narrative version, “Snowden,” is an absorbing version of the story, presenting vitally important issues in an arresting, provocative manner, with some superb moments. It is flawed, as Stone’s “historical” films tend to be, by unnecessary stacking of the deck that detracts from the credibility of the film. Stone does not trust the government, which is fine, but he doesn’t trust his audience, which is distracting. If you are going to make your hero a seeker of Truth, then Hollywood-izing the story is counter-productive.

The movie takes on three big questions, answers one, partially answers another, and turns the third over to us. The first question is: what happened? How did a 29-year-old computer guy get access to what appears to be the entire scope of US intelligence, copy it, and turn it over to reporters? Second, why did he do it? And third, is he a hero or a traitor?

Snowden was an enormously gifted, deeply patriotic young man who was in training for military special forces when an injury forced his return to civilian life. “There are other ways to serve your country,” the doctor crisply advises him. Naming Ayn Rand as one of his influences does not raise any concerns in his battery of entry tests and interviews, including lie detector tests. And so he goes to work for the CIA, NSA, and private contractors for both agencies, gaining access to the information and intrusions into personal data that are being constantly combed and mined for possible terrorist activity. Think of it as the government having Google that searches not just all public material but everything we think of as private: every email, every phone call, every bank account and credit card transaction, even invading your non-digital, analog world, including your home. According to this film, the government can spy on you Big Brother style via your webcam, even if the indicator light is off. I will wait here while you go get a Band-Aid to cover it up right now.

A combination of consciousness-raising from his left-leaning girlfriend (Shailene Woodley), horrifying discoveries of 4th Amendment violations, disturbing revelations about the military-industrial complex (from Nicolas Cage!), and disappointment in President Obama’s failure to curb these abuses leads Snowden to decide to go public. Briefly touched on are some other possible factors: the abuse of Tom Drake, who tried to raise these questions through official channels, and, possibly, some psychological or cognitive disturbance resulting from the onset of epilepsy and the drug used to treat it, or from the level of work-related stress that may have triggered the seizures. There is one “Beautiful Mind”-style scene where Snowden’s CIA boss (Rhys Ifans) speaks to him via a Skype-ish video conference, with a looming, room-size head along the lines of the Wizard of Oz. It is not clear whether this is Snowden’s subjective viewpoint or intended to be a realistic portrayal, but the conversation is, even within the framework of this film about massive intrusions into private lives of citizens with no suggestion of any inappropriate activity, preposterously paranoic.

All of this would be so much easier to take if Snowden was not heroic and brilliant every single moment. Given 5-8 hours to complete a programming test at the beginning of his tenure at the CIA, he finishes in under 40 minutes (38, he corrects his instructor), and everywhere he goes, he blows everyone away with his mad skills. As he zippily downloads the files he plans to turn over to the press (in real life it took months, not minutes), colleagues knowingly nod their approval, hard to understand given his insistence that he was careful to make it clear that he alone was responsible for the breach. Gordon-Levitt is, as ever, an enormously talented actor, but he is playing something of a cipher, a person with low affect. The endlessly skilled Melissa Leo is playing a tough and savvy journalist but as written she has little to do but gaze adoringly as she points her camera. The standouts in the cast are two of the most versatile and talented young actors working on film today: Ben Schnetzer and Lakeith Lee Stanfield as two of Snowden’s colleagues. In their brief screen time, each of them creates vivid, three-dimensional characters we instantly connect to more than we do to any of the main characters.

No matter where we place the balancing point between national security and individual freedom, we can all agree that the decisions should not be made unilaterally by individuals in their 20’s like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Snowden says he is hoping to start a conversation. I hope that the conversations about this film will be less about its failings and more about what we should do to make sure the next Snowden does not decide to take this step.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, sexual references and situations and some nudity, tense and perilous situations, and issues of betrayal.

Family discussion: Is Snowden a hero or a traitor? What would you have done if you discovered the level of government surveillance? Who should decide and how much should be disclosed?

If you like this, try: “Zero Days” and “Citizenfour

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Ebertfest Celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Two Classic Films: Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and Oliver Stone’s “Born on the 4th of July”

Posted on April 27, 2014 at 10:11 pm

As several people noted, 1989 was a remarkable year for movies and Ebertfest paid tribute to two of the best, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and Oliver Stone’s “Born on the 4th of July.”  Even for those who know the films well, seeing them projected onto the Virginia Theater’s giant screen was revelatory.  “It’s criminal to watch a movie on your iPhone,” said Lee, who was especially happy to have a pristine 35 mm print to show.

Lee spoke about the reaction to his film when it was released, from Roger Ebert angrily saying he would never return to Cannes because they passed over “Do the Right Thing” to give their top award to “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” to other critics who worried that the movie would inspire riots.  Many talked about the destruction of the pizzeria owned by the Italian character.  But none mentioned the police brutality that led to the death of the black character.  (Chaz Ebert said that she still has Lee’s letter to Ebert, telling him to go back to Cannes, despite the snub for the film.)   His next film, “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” was funded via Kickstarter.  He told the audience that was just a high-tech version of the kind of crowd-funding he has done with all of his films.  “It just used to be phone calls and postcards.”

Oliver Stone, whose career will be covered in a new book from rogerebert.com editor Matt Zoller Seitz, appeared with his 1989 classic, “Born on the 4th of July.”

One of the highlights of each Ebertfest is a silent film accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra.  This year, we saw “He Who Gets Slapped,” the first film completed by the brand-new studio MGM, with breakthrough performances by Norma Schearer, Lon Chaney, and John Gilbert and stunning direction from Swedish director Victor Seastrom (Sjöström).

Three of the films presented at Ebertfest were directed by women.  Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “Wadjda,”the story of young girl struggling against the restrictions imposed on women in Saudi Arabia, was a favorite of the crowd.  Al-Mansour, who also wrote the film, spoke about the restrictions she herself faced.  She had to sit inside a van to direct the film so she would not be seen giving orders to men.  She was grateful for the support of her family, who believed she could do whatever she wanted.  “The little freedom I had allowed me to dream.”

Director Ann Hui appeared with “A Simple Life,” based on the true story of the reversal of roles when a long-time domestic servant has a stroke and the man she has cared for all his life must take care of her.  She told us, “I was more moved by Roger Ebert’s review of my film than by my film itself.”

Lily Keber presented her documentary about New Orleans musician James Booker, “Bayou Maharajah,” followed by a live performance by one of the musicians featured in the film, Henry Butler.

A trailer for the festival by Michael Marisol was played before each film.  A commencement address by Roger Ebert with his thoughts on the way movies contribute to empathy and understanding is intercut with scenes from the selected films, including the documentary about Ebert, “Life Itself.”  It became one of the festival’s most beloved entries.

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