THE REPORT (2019)

November 18, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Does the end justify the means? Do two wrongs make a right? These are questions of ethics and morality, and when it comes to the government, they can also be questions of legal and illegal, or even life and death. Scott Z Burns offers up his feature film directorial debut, and he has been best known as a screenwriter for Steven Soderbergh films such as THE LAUNDROMAT, SIDE EFFECTS, and THE INFORMANT! Mr. Burns certainly didn’t choose an easy route for his first time in the director chair, as this is a heavy, thought-provoking, stomach-churner.

Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a Senate staffer under Senator Dianne Feinstein. She charges him with leading the Senate investigation into the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Technique (EIT) program after the 9/11 attack. It’s easy to see why so many viewed this as a bad gig, but Jones became obsessed with uncovering the truth about what happened, who did what, and who knew what and when they knew it. This government procedural offers us an education on red tape, political boundaries, and the expertise in protecting fiefdoms in D.C. In other words, everything that we fear and despise about our own government officials is on display here.

That said, it is refreshing to see someone so focused on getting to the truth as Jones is/was … despite the systematic obstacles (destruction of tapes, party divisions). Annette Bening shines as Senator Feinstein and is quite effective in portraying just how difficult it can be for politicians to juggle all sides and pressures when a topic is so “hot”. The film covers a period between 2003 and 2012, and most of the run time is spent on Jones’ research for the report.

The supporting cast is deep and talented, and includes Jon Hamm as Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Michael C Hall, Maura Tierney, Victor Slezak, Tim Blake Nelson, Ben McKenzie, Matthew Rhys, Corey Stoll, and Ted Levine (as CIA Director John Brennan). One of the more interesting aspects of the film involves the contractors behind the EIT program. Basically, they are academics with no real world case studies or experience – just two guys looking to cash in on a lucrative government deal at a time when a country was desperate for answers.

Watching the battle over the final release (or not) of “The Torture Report” (the word torture was redacted here for the title) injects quite a bit of tension, and the inclusion of archival footage from the period is very effective. What’s less effective is the overuse of shaky-cam in the first portion of the film, and the score is downright annoying at times as it attempts to ensure we are frustrated with the political wranglings. On the other hand, the dialogue is crisp and there are some well-written and well-acted quietly-tense exchanges between folks. Adam Driver carries the bulk of the film and he is perfectly cast.

The obvious comparisons are to ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and SPOTLIGHT, though this one never quite reaches that level. Still, it’s thought-provoking to watch as Jones considers a New York Times reporter to be the most ethical character he can turn to in his efforts to get the truth out. The film doesn’t really choose sides … everyone who participated in a cover-up or illegal activities takes a shot, as does Kathryn Bigelow’s ZERO DARK THIRTY. This was a dark time in U.S. history, and it reminds us how difficult it seems to be to do the right thing while in government. Perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway.

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BEAUTIFUL BOY (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There is absolutely nothing that compares to being a parent. Sorry, pet lovers, it’s not even close. And I’m not referring to the romantic notion of having one’s DNA live on as legacy. Rather, nothing compares to the weight of never-a-break responsibility felt in keeping a helpless newborn alive and properly nourished. And later, teaching the right life lessons so that it’s not your kid who bullies others in school, or steals, or damages the property of others. Someone’s kid is going to do those things, and most of us try our darndest to prevent it from being our kid. The reality is, that even the most attentive and best-intentioned parents can sometimes fall victim to a force beyond their control. Such is the situation in writer-director Felix Van Groeningen’s film (co-written with Luke Davis) based on the two memoirs penned by father and son David and Nic Sheff.

We open on David (Steve Carell) disclosing to a physician (Timothy Hutton) that his son Nic (Timothee Chalamet) is addicted to crystal meth, and asking two questions: 1. What is it doing to him? 2. What can I do to help him? The quiet desperation and pain is plainly evident on David’s face. We know immediately that this Steve Carell movie won’t be packed with laughs.

What follows is the harsh reality of drug addiction. Rehab – Relapse – Repeat. Much of the story is dedicated to David’s struggle and devotion to helping his son Nic in any way possible. He’s a helpless father who refuses to give up on his son, despite the constant desperation and frustration. Every glimmer of hope is soon crushed by yet another lie and more drugs. The film is such a downer that it makes LEAVING LAS VEGAS look like an old Disney classic.

Bouncing between timelines is a device that works for many stories, but here it seems to take away some of the poignancy and depth of some scenes. Just as we are being absorbed into a crucial moment, the film often breaks away to an earlier or later time. This is effective in getting the point across about the never-ending struggles, but we lose momentum on particular segments.

Supporting work comes courtesy of 4 talented actresses: Amy Ryan (as Nic’s mother and David’s ex-wife), Maury Tierney (as David’s current wife), Kaitlyn Dever (Nic’s girlfriend), and LisaGay Hamilton (involved in rehab). It’s a bit odd to see the mini-reunion of Ms. Ryan and Mr. Carell from their time on “The Office”, but mostly the on screen time is pretty limited for all four women. The reason this film works is the devastating work of two fine actors – Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet. We never doubt dad’s commitment, just as we never doubt son’s helplessness in getting clean.

The soundtrack acts as a boost to the dialogue with such songs (perhaps a bit too convenient and obvious) as John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy”, Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”, and Perry Como’s “Sunrise, Sunset”. It’s debatable whether it’s possible for a movie to look “too good”, but it’s a bit off-putting to admire the camera work while someone is struggling on screen with drug addiction. The downward spiral of drug addiction feeds on the misery, and while we all enjoy beautiful cinematography, this is the rare time that it’s distracting – possibly preventing viewers from going all in. The inherent lesson here is that we can’t always save people from themselves. Knowing what to do isn’t always possible, and sometimes there is simply no right answer … even with “Everything”.

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ANYTHING (2018)

May 14, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you’ve always wanted to see a movie about “Andy Griffith’s sad brother”, this is the one for you. That’s actually the description one of the characters has for Early, the depressed widower we come to know. Houston-born writer/director Timothy McNeil’s first feature film is adapted from his own stage production. It’s surprisingly intimate and emotional while avoiding many of the clichés we might be braced for, given the subject matter.

John Carroll Lynch (FARGO, ZODIAC) plays Early as a soft-spoken, mild-mannered gentleman from Mississippi. In the immediate aftermath of the tragic death of his wife, Early is dazed. He is sleep-walking through life right up to the point of an attempted suicide. Faced with the choice of a psychiatric hospital or moving cross country to live with family, Early obviously chooses the Brentwood home of his studio executive sister Laurette (Maura Tierney).

Sister Laurette means well, but her controlling persona and determination to “fix” things, leads Early to find his own place. He picks a sketchy apartment complex with ‘eclectic’ neighbors, one of which is Freda (Matt Bomer), a transgender sex worker. Though they appear to be from different planets, she is drawn to his inherent kindness and strength of character, while he is drawn to her vitality and courage. A bond develops.

It’s fascinating to watch the friendship grow, and despite another neighbor, Brianna, (Margot Bingham) calling him “cracker” and do-gooder, it’s clear there is mutual respect amongst the complex residents. When Early invites his family to a dinner party with Freda, awkward and cruel are merely the first adjectives that come to mind. It doesn’t go well, and harsh judgments abound.

Early is a simple man, but Mr. Lynch’s performance ensures he is never a simple character. Mr. Bomer is terrific as Freda, though some will surely protest that a transgender actor was not cast. Plenty of sharp humor accompanies the deep drama, and we are reminded that love is really about the acceptance of others, and finding meaning and connection in life. It’s a small scale film that draws us into the characters, and we find ourselves grasping at hope for each of them.

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