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:


JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (2018)

June 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While I will never tire of seeing really cool dinosaurs on the big screen, I’ll probably never avoid frustration from a poorly written and poorly acted film. On the bright side, I got to see this at the Grand Opening of the beautiful new Alamo Drafthouse in Denton, Texas. A 66 foot curved screen with the best available sound system made the dinosaurs that much more impressive, while simultaneously exposing the acting for the disappointment it is … especially the almost impossible to watch Bryce Dallas Howard.

J.A. Bayona directs this follow up to the 2015 JURASSIC WORLD, but he’s saddled with a subpar script from the writers and director of that previous entry, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. The creatures of the late, great Michael Crichton deserve better. In addition to the aforementioned Ms. Howard (as Claire Dearing), Chris Pratt also returns as the smirking Owen Grady, and this time he flashes some fighting skills that would make Jean-Claude Van Damme proud. Not sure how his experience training baby dinosaurs and building a cabin in the mountains prepared him to single handedly take on an army of armed mercenaries, but such things are possible in a cartoon … which is exactly what this plays like: a live action cartoon with high dollar special effects.

We have a spoof of a villain in Eli Mills, played by an over-the-top Rafe Spall, a quivering techie played by Justice Smith (PAPER TOWNS), a tough Paleo vet in Daniela Pineda (MR ROOSEVELT), a dying billionaire former partner of John Hammond played by James Cromwell, a greedy capitalist who should be twirling a mustache in Toby Jones, a big-gun toting badass by Ted Levine, and a good-hearted housekeeper played by Geraldine Chaplin. Mr. Cromwell and Ms. Chaplin add a touch of class in their all too brief scenes. BD Wong is back doing things with dino DNA, and sadly, Jeff Goldblum probably filmed his two courtroom scenes in a couple of hours. One nice addition is young Isabella Sermon, in her screen debut. She is part of the only decent twist in the story.

Despite the disappointments, it remains awe-inspiring to see the dinosaurs on screen. If only those moments weren’t ruined by such superfluous bits such as a close up of Ms. Howard’s footwear to prove that she’s not wearing high heels in the jungle this time. Director Bayona has three very fine movies under his belt: THE ORPHANAGE (2007), THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012), and A MONSTER CALLS (2016). He’s likely to make more good films during his career, and this will surely be a box office smash because people love seeing the dinosaurs, and are willing to overlook the people. As a frequent movie goer, I’m just unable to cut slack to a mega-budget film that expects us to overlook shoddy writing and laughable acting. We don’t expect to recapture the (25 years ago) magic of Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams in the stunning JURASSIC PARK, but we do expect a better effort than this.

watch the trailer:


BLEED FOR THIS (2016)

November 17, 2016

bleed-for-this Greetings again from the darkness. You may be excused if you believe there have been enough boxing movies recently. Just last year, we saw Creed and Southpaw – both critically acclaimed and featured significant screen time inside the ropes. Writer/director Ben Younger returns with his first movie since 2005 (Prime) and teams up with screenwriter Angelo Pizzo to present the “based on a true story” of Rhode Island’s own Vinny Pazienza.

Mr. Pizzo is known for his work on inspirational sports films like Hoosiers, Rudy, The Game of Their Lives, and My All-American; so the fascinating and true story of Paz is right in his wheelhouse. See, The Pazmanian Devil (his nickname) was a terrific fighter, and is even more famous for his medically-defying comeback after a horrific car accident. The doctors doubted he would ever walk again, and offered Vinny no hope at all of ever fighting again.

Miles Teller (Whiplash, The Spectacular Now) plays Vinny Pazienza and obviously trained very hard to get in tip top shape. His boxing skills are well suited to the training sequences but must be creatively edited for the scenes in the ring. This is especially obvious when clips of the real Paz are inserted. Beyond that, Teller softens the overblown machismo of Pazienza and the boxing world. He captures the single-minded commitment of Pazienza, while making him a bit more likeable than the real man came off in interviews.

Aaron Eckhart is excellent as Pazienza’s (and Mike Tyson’s former) trainer, Kevin Rooney. It’s puzzling how Eckhart’s name ever came up for the role of a balding, pudgy, alcoholic who believes he’s been put out to pasture … but Eckhart and Teller together produce some wonderful scenes. Other support work comes from Ciaran Hinds and an underutilized Katey Sagal as Vinny’s dad and mom, and Ted Levine and Jordan Gelber as boxing promoters Lou and Dan Duva.

The comeback was as improbable as it was inspirational, and the decision to go with the Halo (metal brace that screws into the skull) over the neck fusion surgery could easily be categorized as foolish rather than courageous. But much of the story revolves around the internal make-up and competitive drive that made Vinny the man and the boxer that we see.

The film has more in common with The Fighter than either of the movies mentioned in the first paragraph, but it’s even more character study than boxing movie. This proud, driven, egotistical local from Providence held world titles at three different weight classes, refusing to be limited by the opinions of others. Rather than end with a classically Hollywood shot of victorious Paz celebrating in the ring, the film ends with an odd interview centered on his debate against the phrase “it’s not that easy”. It’s a stance that makes us question whether he ever learned the lessons of gamble vs risk. Mostly though, we marvel and agree that he’s a guy who deserves to be on a box of Wheaties.

watch the trailer: