SNOWDEN (Open Road – Sept 16): Oliver Stone’s return to politically-charged biography is subdued by the standards of his Nixon or W. It’s a hagiography that follows the character arc of his Born of the Fourth of July (true believer finds his ideals crushed by political reality and transforms into a revolutionary agent against his former authority figures), but Stone doesn’t have the raw material here that war and savage physical injury gave him in Born. The story of Edward Snowden and his leaks of the government’s massive electronic surveillance programs requires a more cerebral touch, and that’s never been Stone’s strength. In addition, Snowden is hampered by the existence of the superb documentary Citizenfour (recreations of which are used as structural material here), which has already told much of the story, as well as a pop culture that’s already leaped past Snowden’s leaks to the ultra-paranoid dystopia of Mr. Robot. All of this makes Snowden rather tame (aside from one vintage Stone sequence featuring a threatening CIA honcho on a crazily large video screen), although lucidly written by Kieran Fitzgerald and Stone, and very well cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt bounces back from last year’s cartoon Frenchman of the disastrous The Walk with a solid, intelligent performance as Snowden, and Stone and Fitzgerald have put effort into making Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay (played well by Shailene Woodley) into a more rounded character than that role would usually be. There are also colorful turns by Rhys Ifans, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer and, in a small role, Nicolas Cage. Snowden is an effective piece of work, but no revelation.
AMERICAN PASTORAL (Lionsgate – Oct. 21): Ewan McGregor bit off a lot with his directing debut, adapting (via John Romano’s script) Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the implosion (and explosions) of post-World War II America, and it was all far more than he was able to chew. He can take some comfort from the fact that Roth’s work has mostly resisted the film medium, although the small-scale Goodbye Columbus and this year’s Indignation have come close. Sadly, McGregor isn’t even well-cast in his own leading role. Swede Levov is meant to be an iconic representation of Jewish assimilation, and although part of that is his non-Semitic appearance, McGregor’s Swede doesn’t even seem to have ventured anywhere near the story’s Newark location. He does better with his direction of the other actors: although their roles have been watered down from Roth’s versions of them, Jennifer Connelly as Swede’s wife shows dimensions of tamped-down rage and despair, and Dakota Fanning, whose forte even as a child star was off-kilter characters, is well chosen as their daughter, who becomes a criminal in the 1960s anti-war movement and then manages to sink even lower. As a relatively simple family drama, this Pastoral has its moments, but it doesn’t touch its source material’s greatness.
CARRIE PILBY (no distrib): The lines between cable/streaming dramedy and indie film have been all but erased in recent years, and Susan Johnson’s first film as a director could just as easily have turned up as a pilot on FX or Netflix as at a film festival. In fact, the TV version of the story (adapted by Kara Holden from Caren Lissner’s novel) may well have gone deeper than this pleasant crowd-pleaser, which despite a few eccentric trappings is a routine rom-com at heart. The main trapping is Carrie herself, a child prodigy who attended Harvard at age 14, and when we meet her is 19 years old and at a loss, smarter than anyone around her yet more screwed up. Carrie herself is very appealingly played by Bel Powley, in what amounts to a much more accessible version of her role in the little-seen Diary of a Teenage Girl, but your heart may sink when her therapist (Nathan Lane) kicks off the storyline by giving her a to-do list that includes “Make a Friend” and “Spend New Year’s Eve With Someone”. It’s all as contrived as that, and only gets more so as the last reel approaches, with an ending that anyone who’s seen a rom-com will predict about 15 minutes in. Johnson does keep things moving, if on a rather impersonal level, and she’s assembled a fine cast to support Powley that, apart from Lane, includes Vanessa Bayer, Desmin Borges, Jason Ritter, Gabriel Byrne and William Moseley. On its own terms, it’s good-hearted and moderately entertaining, and it won’t be hurt at all if it’s eventually interrupted by commercial breaks.