This week in home video, we have a documentary on Edward Snowden, a Cameron Crowe flop, Albert Maysles’ finale film, and a host of classic and contemporary releases. Kicking things off is “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’ documentary about Edward Snowden and his 2013 NSA disclosures. For several years, Poitras had been investigating the U.S. government’s post-9/11 monitoring activities, but then one day in January 2013, she received an encrypted email from Snowden who called himself “Citizen Four.” He said that he had inside information about the NSA’s illegal wiretapping practice. So Poitras, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, and intelligence reporter Ewan MacAskill travel to Hong Kong to meet Snowden and eventually plan to release loads of classified documents that clearly illustrate the U.S. government has been spying on their citizens. Critics have roundly praised “Citizenfour” for not only its thrilling subject matter, but also its compelling filmmaking as Poitras structures and constructs her documentary like a modern day spy thriller.
Other new releases this week include Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha.” A box office bomb, “Aloha” combines Crowe’s interests in love triangles, critiques of the military-industrial complex, explorations of cultural erosion, and classic rock into a mishmash of a film starring Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Jim from “The Office,” Kenny Powers from “Eastbound and Down,” Jack Donaghy from “30 Rock,” and Bill Murray. Next, there’s legendary documentarian Albert Maysles’ last film “Iris,” about the 93-year-old fashion icon and interior decorator Iris Apfel. Apfel is best known for her restoration work at the White House under nine different administrations, as well as her constant curation work, but Maysles focuses on simply following Iris as she goes about her daily activities, spitting one-liners and dressing in fun outfits. Finally, there’s “Lila & Eve,” a revenge-thriller starring Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez who plays parents whose children have been murdered and decide to seek out the killers themselves.
On the classic front, Criterion has the Dardennes Brothers’ Oscar-nominated “Two Days, One Night” on Blu-ray. “Two Days, One Night” stars Marion Cotillard as Sandra, a wife and mother suffering from depression desperately trying to hold on to her factory job after a majority of the workers voted to fire her while she was away on sick leave. Now, it’s up to her to convince a majority of her co-workers to either choose to keep her on and give up their bonus (the reward for letting Sandra go) or to have her lose her job. Next, we have a few releases from Olive Films: First, there’s the 2003 version of “The Singing Detective,” starring Robert Downey Jr. as the titular detective; then, there’s “Student Bodies,” a 1981 parody film of slasher films like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”; finally, there’s “The Last American Virgin,” a crude 80’s teen comedy about a group of friends trying to lose their virginity in high school. Kino Films has Guillaume Nicloux’s off-beat documentary “The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq” about the famed intellectual’s brief mysterious disappearance in 2011, an event that the man still refuses to discuss. Finally, Factory 25 has Alex Ross Perry’s second film “The Color Wheel,” about a dysfunctional sibling relationship and a road trip, on DVD, with extras that include a 52-page booklet and Perry’s first film “Impolex.”
Scott Tobias, The Dissolve
Though “Citizenfour” is a news-making event, an opportunity to witness history in the making, what’s most surprising and gratifying about it is that it’s also a savvy piece of filmmaking. Given the opportunity to be the first point of contact for a source like Snowden, most documentarians would be happy just to check and double-check that the camera is in focus and the sound is rolling. But Poitras’ goals are more ambitious than simply occupying a front-row seat as the new century’s most explosive civil-liberties case unfolds before her. Deploying a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — best known for providing the sinister undercurrents of David Fincher’s “The Social Network” and “Gone Girl” — Poitras fashions “Citizenfour” into a spy thriller whose intrigues bleed into everyday life. She doesn’t want the audience to feel like Snowden’s revelations are limited to him and potential enemies of the state — or even to activist journalists like her and Greenwald. She makes the threat feel as pervasive as they believe it to be. Read more.
Criticwire Average: C
Jason Bailey, Flavorwire
And sure, “Aloha” has its problems. It somehow simultaneously over- and underwritten, with certain motivations explained to the nth degree while entire subplots are all but impossible to track. It has a “falling in love” Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude that plays like someone doing a Cameron Crowe imitation, poorly. The seams of the re-shot ending couldn’t be clearer if there were grease-pencil marks on the frame. And while corny romantic dialogue is, to some extent, Mr. Crowe’s #brand, lines like, “Take those blue eyes and go to her” aren’t exactly, “You had me at hello.” Or…are they? While there’s no question Crowe’s last three narrative features — “Vanilla Sky,” “Elizabethtown,” and “We Bought a Zoo” — didn’t approach the heights of “Say Anything,” “Jerry Maguire,” and “Almost Famous,” none is a washout. Each has at least a sprinkling of heartfelt writing, sharp performances, and good sequences; what’s more, the overall greatness of his early pictures can help us forget their occasional maudlin interludes or creaky exchanges. But they’re there, and they’re real. It seems less that Crowe’s gifts have escaped him than that they’ve become disproportionate with his excesses, and we’re less forgiving of those trespasses. Read more.
Criticwire Average: A-
Vadim Rizov, The A.V. Club
Apfel makes for an interesting subject, especially when talking about how clothing reflects the politics, science, and history of the times; for her, fashion is a conduit to discussing all of these things. In between such conversations, the movie plays a dutiful personal assistant, tagging along with Apfel during her routines without ever crafting something like a storyline. There’s time in New York and Palm Beach, discussions of how busy she is, and, at one particularly banal moment, a trip to the Home Shopping Network to sell her clothing line. At all times, Iris remains “on” without effort. The film makes it clear how much daily hustle she requires to maintain her partially extravagant lifestyle without getting too worried about the topic.For Apfel, fashion is a blissful distraction from everything disappointing and exhausting about life. “Iris” aligns itself with this viewpoint by creating a short, escapist portrait of a woman who’s lived and aged well, and now finds herself routinely celebrated in frequently opulent circumstances. Complementarily designed to revel in the fantasy of its luxurious setting, the film never digs too deep or steps out of line. Viewer entertainment will vary in direct proportion to interest in the unusual but ultimately mundane details of Apfel’s day-to-day. She is, for what it’s worth, good company. Read more.
“Lila & Eve”
Criticwire Average: B-
Bilge Ebiri, Vulture
“Lila & Eve” is an awkward movie, though sometimes by design. There’s a twist near the end that you can probably see coming from a mile away. And the drug dealers and the cops talk like clichés, which might have worked in a film that ceded more ground to genre. But the film wants to be smarter than that, and it often is. The violence is neither glorified nor gritty. There’s a detached quality to the way director Charles Stone III (who once made the very promising “Drumline” and “Paid in Full”) films those moments: You might expect him to play up the immediacy, to give us the horror of these two seemingly ordinary women suddenly finding themselves in the midst of such madness. But the shootings happen quickly, unremarkably — as if they were the logical conclusion of each exchange rather than its disruption. That at first also feels like a mistake. If the grief is so visceral, why isn’t the violence? But there, Stone plays a long game. To satisfy us, or even to horrify us, would be to compromise the film’s morality and compassion. So he focuses as much as he can on Davis, pulling in close to her, letting her quiet pain do the talking. Not a bad move. The actress probably has the most expressive eyes of any actor working today, and her face tells the real story of the film: It speaks to us not so much of fury, but of regret and grief. Lila is a haunted woman, in more ways than one, and so is this movie. Read more.