1971 (Johanna Hamilton, 2014). Clearly positioned as a history lesson for those who venerate Edward Snowden for his digital freedom fighting in bringing to light information about the U.S. government’s shady spying on its own citizens, 1971 focuses in on a break-in at a Pennsylvania FBI office in the year of the title. Those who are shocked by the modern transgressions against privacy can watch this documentary for a bracing reminder that federal crime-fighting agencies are in full-scale same-as-it-ever-was territory, Patriot Act or not. Of course, that doesn’t make current abuses acceptable, but the indignation is best shaped as part of a long arc instead of flashpoint ire over supposedly unprecedented betrayal. The film is solid, admirably underplaying its coup, captured on the coattails of the Betty Medsger book that inspired it, of revealing the identities of the perpetrators who remained unnamed for forty years. It unfortunately has the now commonplace indulgence of dramatizing the events for which footage is unavailable and could have better explored the splintered paths followed by the radicals in the decades since their altruistic crime. Overall, though, it makes a case for the value in pushing back against oppressive power structures, especially in a nation that is supposed to be resolutely of the people.
Fair Game (Doug Limon, 2010). This docudrama traces the Bush administration’s outing of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) as an undercover CIA agent, in clear violation of federal law and in a cheap attempt to cover up their own virulent dishonesty in the run-up to the Iraq War. The film is at its best when screenwriters Jez and John Butterworth stick to the plain mechanics of governmental officials and agencies at cross-purposes. It falters nearly everywhere else, as attempts to dramatize the interpersonal conflicts that the tense days stirred up feel leaden and didactic. Watts is strong and believable as Plame, but Sean Penn is clearly coasting as her aggrieved husband, Joseph Wilson. Limon, trying on serious filmmaking as a break from action spectacles, overcompensates for the perceived staidness of the story, too often flopping his camera around in a misguided attempt to create visual dynamism.
The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, 1963). This is Bergman at his chilliest and most emotionally abstract, even though the storyline hints at melodrama. Two sisters (Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom) are traveling, along with the young son (Jörgen Lindström) of one of them, and stop to stay in a fading grand hotel. There are tensions at play, perhaps stirred by immediate stressors (one of the sisters in gravely ill) but more likely the culmination of long-fermenting conflict. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is typically intoxicating in its gloomy beauty, and Bergman was in the midst of his long peak of crafting cinema that defied expectation in its willingness to engage in elusive rumination. Still, the archness of the tone is sometimes a little too distancing, making this comes across as a bit of rough draft for future masterworks.
Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011). The screen adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s stage work (the screenplay is co-credited to the original playwright and Polanski) is a quintessential example of making inert cinema by adamantly refusing to reshape material for a different form. With few exceptions, Polanski opts for structures and staging that could have worked as well in a theater as on a screen. The film could have arguably still been salvaged by strong performances, especially given the impressive stature of the cast assembled. But every last one of them overacts to at least a degree, with Jodie Foster, amazingly enough, the worst offender and Christoph Waltz coming the closest to a respectable turn, if only because the officiousness of his acting actually suits the character. To be fair, the film begins with abounding inherent problems in Reza’s story, which is so labored and contrived that it would take a succession of moviemaking miracles to make it emerge as something sharply real.
Pitch Perfect 2 (Elizabeth Banks, 2015). I was hardly enamored with the first screen dance with a capella underdogs the Barden Bellas, but it looks sprightly and heartfelt compared with its witless sequels. The troupe is now three-time defending champs, soaring with diva-esque self-assurance until an accidental act of on-stage lewdness leads to an improbable ban from national collegiate competition, with only a daunting worldwide showcase available as a pathway to retribution. Banks directs with a frenetic indifference to coherently shaping the narrative, not that the screenplay by Kay Cannon (who also wrote the first film) has any evident concern for solid structure or internal consistency. It’s a bunch of lackluster ideas and shapeless jokes heedlessly heaped together, as if upended a laundry basket onto a mattress will magically result in a crisply made bed.