JOHN AND THE HOLE (2021)

August 5, 2021

Oak Cliff Film Festival 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Why would anyone be surprised that the actions of a teenager make no logical sense? Thirteen year old John (an excellent Charlie Shotwell, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, 2014) comes across as a shy kid, and a curious one as well. He’s a talented tennis player, enjoys going head-to-head in video games with his online friend, and even plays piano. Despite his upper class family life, we sense there is something a bit off about John – although his busy parents are supportive and his banter with his older sister is pretty normal. But his emotionless demeanor sends our mind to dark, uncertain places … places we hope John doesn’t go, although we kind of expect him to.

This is the first feature film directed by Pascual Sisto, and the script comes from Oscar winner Nicolas Giacobone (BIRDMAN, 2014). You should know it’s not the typical narrative arc. One day John, with the help of his shiny new drone, locates a long-forgotten unfinished bunker in the nearby woods. The next thing we know, John has drugged his family and dumped them in that hole. That’s not a spoiler, as it’s shown in the trailer. When Mom (Jennifer Ehle, SAINT MAUD, 2020), Dad (Michael C Hall, “Dexter”), and sis (Taissa Farmiga, “American Horror Story”) awaken in the mucky pit, they are frightened and confused. When John appears to deliver food and blankets, he offers nothing in the way of an explanation.

As movie watchers, we have been conditioned to expect this type of situation will lead to significant violence. Instead, we watch as John steps into his newfound freedom. His image of adulting is what he’s observed from his parents: classical music, wine, cooking, milking the ATM, and driving the car. He has bypassed the coming-of-age stage, passed “go”, and moved directly into his version of adulthood. We know this can’t end well, but John is thirteen and isn’t mature enough, regardless of this manufactured freedom, to plan ahead.

This is a wealthy family living in a glass house … an unmistakable metaphor. A sense of entitlement and pursuit of money has distracted the parents from focusing on the importance of teenage years. Whether they realize this looking up at him from the bunker is debatable. John’s story is told by a mother to her daughter, an unusual sequence that acts as an awkward framing device. Cinematographer Paul Ozgur delivers terrific camera work with the house, the bunker in the woods, and John’s odd demeanor. This is an unsettling film that is more psychological drama than thriller or character study. It clearly borrows from two masters, Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos, but falls short of their best work (as you’d expect). Still, the film has a certain style, and reminds us that the moral to the story of a teenager’s actions often boils down to “don’t do that”.

Opens in select theaters and On Demand August 6, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


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.

watch the trailer:


CHRISTINE (2016)

November 3, 2016

christine Greetings again from the darkness. On July 15, 1974, television news reporter Christine Chubbuck read a prepared statement and then committed suicide on-air by putting a gun to her head and pulling the trigger. You may not recognize her name, but you have likely heard the story … it’s no urban legend. Director Antonio Campos and writer Craig Shilowich offer up a biopic with some insight into Ms. Chubbuck’s personal and professional life so that we might better understand what drove her to such a public and tragic end.

Rebecca Hall takes on the titular role (don’t mistake this for the 1983 John Carpenter/Stephen King film), and despite her usual stilted on screen mannerisms, she delivers what is an emotionally raw and nuanced performance that is the best of her career … and one that keeps us glued to a story of which we already know the ending. We see a woman dedicated to her vision of the profession, while being maddening to those who know her, love her, and work with her. She has an awkward intensity that compounds her lack of social skills and an ongoing struggle with depression. Somehow, Ms. Hall allows us to understand the personal and professional struggles and how things could have spiraled into hopelessness for Christine.

The commentary on the early days of tabloid journalism (“If it bleeds, it leads”) is especially interesting given how the current Presidential campaigns have been covered more than 40 years after the film is set. One might also note the parallels to the character of Howard Beale in Network (1976) … though Christine Chubbuck was less vociferous and never took to yelling “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” while on camera (though she evidently felt that way).

Support work comes from Tracy Letts as the frustrated news director, Michael C Hall as the mixed-signals anchorman on whom Christine has a quiet crush, J. Smith-Cameron as her mother and housemate, Maria Dizzia as her friend and co-worker, and Timothy Simons as the misunderstood and ignored weatherman.

The film clearly makes the point that Christine was a misfit in her work and personal life, and though some of the timeline and known specifics are either re-worked or ignored for artistic purposes, Ms. Hall must be commended for highlighting the effects of depression. Even the best meaning friends and family can unintentionally make things worse. We see a clip of Walter Cronkite’s actual report of her death, and Christine’s own words – “The latest in blood and guts” – were actually ahead of her time.

watch the trailer: