Friday Arts Diary | 30 August 2013

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

BFI Monster Weekend, British Museum, Friday 29 August – Sunday 1 September, Films start at 20:00 daily 

Experience the British film industry at its best this weekend as the British Museum presents a trio of titles from the golden age of gothic horror. On Friday enjoy Jacques Tourneur’s chillingly realistic masterpiece The Night of the Demon which is sure to spook even the least superstitious among you. Saturday plays host to Hammer Horror’s Dracula, a bloody yet beautiful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel. The festival concludes on Sunday with The Mummy – an unconventional love story that has enchanted young and old alike. The eerie surroundings of the British Museum courtyard and classic soundtracks will further tempt London’s thrill seekers to join the fun.  

Concert

iTunes Festival, Roundhouse, Sunday 1 September – Monday 30 September

It’s that time of year again. Teenagers up and down the country will be applying for tickets to the iTunes Festival – 30 days of seriously good (and free) music gigs held in Camden’s Roundhouse. Global superstars including chart topper Ellie Goulding and the object of Miley Cyrus’ striptease Robin Thicke will take the stage alongside emerging talent Bastille and The Voice’s Jessie J. As long as Miley Cyrus doesn’t ‘butt’ in it will be a month to remember.             

Music Festival

The Zoo Project Festival, Leicestershire,  until Sunday 1 September 

The Zoo Project Festival returns for a second year and promises to be bigger and better than before. Situated deep in the heartland of the British Countryside, within the woodlands of Donington Park in Leicestershire, The Zoo Project is an unparalleled experience. With 70 star-studded acts lined up and 16 hours of music a day unleash the animal inside as you party till 4am; a Safari Spa is always on hand to help with those head-throbbing mornings after.

South Asian Festival

London Mela, Gunnersbury Park, Acton, Sunday 1 September 1pm – 9pm

Immerse yourself in another culture as the London Mela – Europe’s largest outdoor South Asian festival – returns to Gunnersbury Park. Crowds always flock to Acton to enjoy the lineup of British Asian music and Bollywood figures including music artist A S Kang and singer-songwriter Arjun. Foodies will enjoy the gastronomic delights from the surrounding stalls; with DJs, dance, markets and street art as well as a funfair it’s sure to be a family day out full of weird and wonderful experiences.  

TV

Bad Education, BBC Three, 22:00, Tuesday 3 September 

Jack Whitehall bares all in his return to the big screen in the second series of the hit sitcom. Whitehall plays Alfie Wickers – the caricature of that completely useless teacher we all had at school – and in this episode alone treats us to comedy gold. From his unsuccessful attempts to lure a co-star who plays for the other team to being the object of the fascist tendencies of another, the UK’s poshest comedian will have you cringing the whole way through.  

Jack Whitehall stars in Bad Education. Photograph: Getty Images
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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump