Seed (2017)


Team Nomad’s success is no shoe-in.

(2017) Documentary (Something Different) Ethan Reid, Shahar Hussein, Pulkit Mahajan, Brian Collins, Adi Abili, Milan Koch, Saheen Ali, Paul Glaser, Christopher Wellise, Peter Berger, Brent Freeman, Sean Hughes, Devin Mui, Arjun Dev Arora, Ahmed, Bettirose. Directed by Andrew Wonder

 

When most of us think of hackers, we think of pimply-faced basement-dwelling laptop rats who take out their anger on not getting laid – ever –  by disrupting legitimate websites and from time to time stealing information from major Internet sites. Sometimes we think of the Anonymous hackers who disrupt the socially unjust. We rarely think of hacking as a source for positive change.

And yet AngelHack who were one of the earliest proponents of “hack-a-thons” (competitions for hackers) have turned the innovation of these code writing iconoclasts into potential businesses with seed money coming from Silicon Valley venture capitalists and other underwriters. It’s a very big deal in the hacking community and one of the most prestigious events on the Hacking calendar. They sponsor something called Silicon Valley week where dozens of hackers/code writers/would-be entrepreneurs get together, pitch their apps to first the AngelHack board who determine if they have the stuff to go on to the big stage where they can pitch their demos to industry leaders.

It’s a situation in which the stress levels are ratcheted up to an 11. The documentary follows three teams, including Team Report Taka with spokesperson Bettirose is trying to develop an app that will save lives in their native Nairobi, Kenya; Shahar Hussein is driving for Uber in New York while his brother-in-law Ahmed is watching over their start-up in Palestine which will help businesses there hook up with couriers to deliver packages. Finally Team Nomad, led by three teens are juggling high school with their app which will allow shoppers to take a picture of an item they see that they want to buy and then be taken to a site where they can buy it, something that appeals to the social media generation who can’t be bothered to look stuff up.

Each of these teams are among 14 teams from across the globe vying for interview time with venture capitalists and substantial seed money that could help their dreams take off. Each of the teams are in it for different reasons; one to change the world, another to make a better life for themselves and their families, a third just to prove they can do it.

It isn’t easy though. Team Nomad is having serious troubles getting their app to work for the demo. Shahar and Ahmed are not seeing eye to eye on their business’s future. The Report Taka team needs to be able to convince the various judges that their app is much more than a locally useful app that is worth developing for global use. The day they present after all is called Global Demo Day. The stakes are incredibly high.

This kind of film lives or dies based on how much the audience identifies with the various participants and ends up with a rooting interest for them. Team Report Taka came the closest for me; their app is one that collates reports of dumped garbage and analyzes it, helping the Kenyan government determine if it is proving a threat (garbage that collects in the rivers of Nairobi often contribute to flooding which can be severe enough to end lives). They have a difficult time communicating in English and perhaps understanding the capitalist culture that drives these kinds of things. It’s hard not to root for people who want to save lives though.

The other two teams are less altruistic. Both are working on apps that will aid e-commerce, and that’s all well and good. The teens involved with Team Nomad are often a bit cocky and considering they have a concept and not a working app makes one wonder if they are selling smoke and mirrors. Finally Shahar is maybe a bit mule-headed as is Ahmed and the two of them butt heads on some fairly basic issues. It isn’t always pretty.

Wonder has a nice visual sense and some of the shots here are really cool, but he for some reason decides to do some of the interview segments in unusual locations and positions; the Report Taka team is made to lie down on the floor like spokes on a wheel while Team Nomad is in a dark room lit by blue computer screens. I get that he wanted to get away from typical talking head tropes but it ended up being distracting and off-putting. An A for imagination but an C- for execution.

Nonetheless while the movie doesn’t really add much to the competition documentary subgenre, it is at least reasonably informative although some of the jargon may fly over the heads of those who aren’t technologically inclined. I consider myself reasonably tech-savvy and some of the things that the various participants said left me befuddled but I suppose most documentaries have their share of jargon, no?

I found the process that the teams undergo to be fascinating enough to overcome some of the films’ flaws. It’s available right now on Amazon Prime so those who are members of that service can stream the movie for free; it is also available for rent for those who are not Prime members. In any case, for those who are intrigued by how software is developed, this is a movie that will be right up your alley. For those who may prefer that how their Fandango app works be a mystery to them should probably give this one a pass.

REASONS TO GO: The process is fascinating.  Some of the cinematography is really cool.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a little bit jargon-heavy. Sometimes the filmmaker goes a little bit overboard with the artistic license.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity but not a lot of it.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The three members of Team Nomad were all 16 and 17 years old when the process started and needed to be driven to preliminary events by their parents.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wordplay
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Logan

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Snowden


Edward Snowden in the military.

Edward Snowden in the military.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Open Road) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Shailene Woodley, Nicolas Cage, Rhys Ifans, Joely Richardson, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Ben Chaplin, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Nicholas Rowe, Bhasker Patel, Patrick Joseph Bymes, Christy Meyer, Robert Firth, Edward Snowden. Directed by Oliver Stone

 

Edward Snowden remains one of the most controversial figures of our time. There are those who label him a hero while others loathe him as a traitor. He polarizes opinion like nobody else and there are those on both sides of the political aisle that would like to see him answer for his crimes of revealing the NSA’s program of secret surveillance of the American people.

The movie has had a bit of a checkered history; it has been delayed at least twice, once to complete some of the special effects and the other to avoid competition from the major blockbusters. Once the film was released, it got almost zero support from its distributor and came and went from the theaters with little fanfare. Did it deserve that kind of fate?

Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) is an idealistic young man whose ideals are somewhat conservative. He joins the military, wanting to serve his country but a badly broken leg puts an end to his military service. Instead, he’s recruited by the CIA to write code and serve his country in a different way. His mentor at the CIA, Corbin O’Brien (Ifans) takes a healthy interest in the young man’s career.

He also meets Lindsay Mills (Woodley), a free-spirited college student who supports herself through exotic dancing. The unlikely couple form a close bond and soon have a budding relationship, even though she’s as liberal as they come and he’s a staunch rock-ribbed conservative. He ends up writing programs that help root out terrorists and keep America safe.

Then, as he switches to the more lucrative consulting position at the NSA, he begins to discover some disturbing things. For example, the phone surveillance program he wrote is now targeting everybody and is gathering so much data the NSA has to build huge facilities to store it all. So despite having a beautiful home in Hawaii, a lucrative job and a bright future, he decides to blow the whistle on all this patently illegal material.

He sets up a meet with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Quinto) in Hong Kong. He is clearly paranoid, expecting to be grabbed by NSA agents or the local police at any moment. But once Poitras and Greenwald have a chance to examine the documents, they realize they have the story of the century on their hands. It is just a matter of convincing their editors to allow them to tell it.

How you’re going to receive this film is going to depend an awful lot on how you view Edward Snowden. If you see him as a vile traitor giving state secrets to the media, then you’ll hate this movie. If you think he’s a heroic whistleblower who tried to put the brakes on what was clearly a morally heinous policy, you’re more likely to like this movie. Know going in that Stone is clearly in the latter camp and really doesn’t offer any sort of alternative viewpoint. It seemed to me that most reviews followed the political line; conservative movie critics tended to give it lower scores, more liberal critics higher ones.

So I’m trying to be as objective as I can, but it is difficult to filter out one’s own precepts. Gordon-Levitt I think does a very credible job as Snowden, capturing the cadences of his speech nicely although in a much deeper register than the real Snowden speaks in. Snowden is in many ways not the most charismatic of men so it’s hard to fault Gordon-Levitt for being a bit dry here, but he does seem to capture Snowden’s essential personality.

The rest of the cast is pretty strong – Ifans is virtually unrecognizable – but a lot of the big names are in for what are essentially cameos. Most of the film revolves around Snowden, Lindsey and the journalists. Basically, that’s enough to keep my interest.

I can understand some questioning that the movie makes Snowden to be something of a saint. I don’t think he is and I don’t think that he himself is above questioning by the filmmaker. Poitras, whose documentary on the events here CITIZENFOUR won an Oscar, painted a much more balanced picture of Snowden and in the process, made him more relatable. The Snowden here is a little bit less so because of that and I think it does the film a disservice to go that route.

There are some pretty good moments throughout the movie – Snowden’s initial meeting with the journalists, the events of his smuggling the data out of the NSA facility (a conjectural scene since Snowden has yet to and probably never will reveal how he actually did it) and the end scene when Snowden speaks to the TED conference via satellite – and Gordon-Levitt morphs into the real Edward Snowden, who gets the last word in the film fittingly enough.

It’s a well-made film – you would imagine Stone would at least produce that – but it’s more than just that. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on the state of things, whether the price of security is too high or whether liberty trumps that price. We’ve got a lot to think about as a society, much to demand from our leaders. Snowden reminds us that sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t doing the right thing.

REASONS TO GO: Gordon-Levitt really captures the cadences of Snowden’s speech. It has the taut atmosphere of a spy thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks any counter-argument to make it seem more fair-minded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gordon-Levitt’s second straight film based on an Oscar-winning documentary; the first was The Walk which was the dramatic account of the documentary Man on Wire.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: CITIZENFOUR
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Magnificent Seven (2016)