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:


BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK (2016)

November 17, 2016

billy-lynn Greetings again from the darkness. “Thank you for your service.” For those of us who have never served in the military, we say the words because we don’t know how else to show our appreciation. Do the words ring hollow to those in uniform? Maybe. Probably. But how else can we honor these brave souls? What if we have them share a stage with a pop singing group during halftime of a football game? It’s this line between honor and propaganda that takes up much of the new movie from two-time Oscar winning director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain).

The story is based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, and revolves around soldier Billy Lynn’s and his fellow “Bravo” squad members as they make the rounds back home (in 2004) for publicity after their intense battle sequence is caught on camera. There is much at play here: how the soldiers interact with each other, how they are treated by the general public, how they are used by the team’s owner and the Army for self-serving reasons, and how Billy juggles the stress of war, the spotlight of heroism, and the demands from his family.

Director Lee opted to experiment with the ultra-realism of the new 120 frames per second in 4k 3D, rather than the standard 24 fps. Though this may seem like a minor detail that shouldn’t be addressed in a review of the movie, it’s impossible to ignore this impact. Technical advancements in film and digital have resulted in some exciting new effects for movies, but this high speed approach creates a soap opera look and feel that will likely be disorienting to many viewers. Although the full effect will only be available in New York and Los Angeles (due to shortage of projectors), the clarity on the close-ups is distracting, while leaving the background quite fuzzy and out of focus. Many will find this new look to be “not right” for a movie, and prefer the traditional look. Others may embrace the heightened sense of reality … of being right there with the characters. Of course, this is Ang Lee’s film, so there is no shortage of stunning visuals and expert shots.

Beyond the technical aspects, this movie is simply a bit clunky to watch, not very well written (screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli), not very well acted, and has an overall awkward and unfinished feel to it. Kristen Stewart plays Billy’s sister, and her limited screen time is the best part of the movie. Newcomer Joe Alwyn makes a decent reluctant (and lucky) hero in playing Billy, but he doesn’t have the chops to overcome the script weakness and the burden of carrying so many scenes. This is especially obvious in his unrealistic bonding scenes with cheerleader Faison (played by Makenzie Leigh). Their scenes together are nearly unwatchable.

Supporting work comes from Vin Diesel as Billy’s philosophical officer in recurring flashbacks to the war, Garrett Hedlund as the current squad leader, a miscast Steve Martin as team owner Norm Oglesby (a Jerry Jones type), and Chris Tucker as the incessantly yammering agent/producer trying to put a movie deal together for the soldiers. Other minor contributors include Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McKinnon (in horrible make-up), Ismael Cruz Cordova, Deidre Lovejoy, and a couple of All-Pro players in Richard Sherman and JJ Watt.

Since there are some interesting and important elements to the story, the assumption here is that most effort went towards the experimental technical aspects. More attention to scene detail could have more effectively contrasted the soldier’s take on war versus the never-ending inclination of Americans to turn most anything into more and bigger entertainment … even Destiny’s Child isn’t enough. The questionable filmmaking decisions leave us with the shell of a good story, and too many sappy close-ups of actors emoting directly to the camera lens. The soldier vs hero debate deserves better, and the propaganda aspect deserves a more critical eye.

watch the trailer:

 

 


ANESTHESIA (2016)

January 7, 2016

anesthesia Greetings again from the darkness. The comparisons to Crash, the 2006 Oscar winner for Best Picture, will be numerous and understandable. However, rather than an expose’ on racial tension, writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson turns his pen and lens towards the somewhat less profound, though still fruitful subject matter of suburban angst amidst the educated elite.

An opening featuring a violent mugging on the stoop of a NYC brownstone grabs our attention quickly, and rather than follow the immediate aftermath, we are instead taken back in time to study the characters and events leading to that tragic moment. The tangled web of intertwined stories is made up of no fewer than fifteen different characters, each of whom is impacted by what happens in that opening sequence.

Sam Waterston plays a beloved Columbia University Philosophy Professor who is exceedingly happily married to Glenn Close. Director Tim Blake Nelson plays their son, who is married to Jessica Hecht, and together they have a teenage son and daughter (Ben Konigsberg, Hannah Marks). Michael K Williams plays a big shot attorney who forces his best friend (K Todd Freeman) into drug rehab with a renowned doctor (Yul Vazquez), while Gretchen Mol plays the mother of two daughters and wife of Corey Stoll.

All of the above might seem simple enough, but Mr. Nelson’s script jumbles things up for each character … just like what happens in real life. Waterston discovers that his prized pupil (Kristen Stewart) has psychological issues and needs professional help – just as he decides it’s time to retire from teaching. While their kids are smoking pot and exploring sexual frontiers, Hecht and Nelson are dealing with a medical dilemma. During his rehab, Freeman is quietly confronted by a nurse while being let down by his only friend; and as Ms. Mol turns to the bottle to numb her daily pain, her hubby is making plans with someone else (Mickey Sumner) … and China may or may not play a role. Whew!!

Daily life creates many opportunities. Some of these turn out good, while others seem destined to create pain. It’s that pain … sometimes quite arbitrary … and how we deal with it, which is at the core of these characters and their stories. There is also the always-present quest for truth and search for the meaning of life. We know we are in for a ride when Waterston’s character says “I used to believe in nothing. Now I believe in everything.” Worlds colliding at every turn keep the pace of the film brisk, and the familiar cast of actors allows us to easily accept each of the characters. A bit more polish on the script could have elevated this, but even as is, the film delivers a worthy punch, and has us questioning if we should be “planting cabbages” (Montaigne).

watch the trailer:

 


THE HOMESMAN (2014)

December 1, 2014

homesman Greetings again from the darkness. We have come to expect our Westerns to be filled with stoic heroes and nasty villains, but this film delivers a pious, yappy leading lady paired with a selfish, no frills drifter. Based on the 1988 novel from Glendon Swarthout, it’s also the second directorial outing from Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2005).

Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a name repeated so many times that it will surely stick with you … even if the movie doesn’t. Thirty-one years old and unmarried, Ms. Cuddy is not without talent. She works the plough horses, cooks up fried chicken, and plays a mean fake piano. As is pointed out to her a couple of times, she is also “bossy” and “plain” looking … neither trait especially appealing to men in the wild west.

Ms. Cuddy volunteers to take three local women to Iowa. The three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) have each gone insane, and somehow Iowa is the most civilized place within a wagon ride’s distance. Cuddy teams up with a low-life drifter played by Tommy Lee Jones, after they strike a deal that allows him to escape certain death. The verbal clash of cultures and personality between the two main characters provides most of the action on screen, as the three women being escorted are mostly muted and either locked in the back of the wagon or tied to a wagon wheel during riding breaks.

The film is at its best when focusing on the harsh realities of frontier life. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) does a nice job of capturing the wide expanse and stark vastness of the landscape, while also tossing in some artsy silhouettes and proof of abruptness of this life. Director Jones utilizes some haphazardly timed flashbacks to help us better understand the plight of the three women, but this could have been done much more effectively. Courage, inner-strength, and morality all play a role here, and the contrast between frontier and civilization was most distinct.

Much of the film plays like an oddball buddy picture – think Nolte and Murphy in 48 Hours, or Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. If you find the interaction between Swank and Jones to be realistic, then you will probably buy into the whole film. If not, the lack of flow and choppiness of scenes will jump out. There seems to be a never ending stream of little more than cameos from a tremendous line-up of actors: Barry Corbin, William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons, David Dencik, Evan Jones, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and Hailee Steinfeld. There are even a couple of scenes near the end featuring Meryl Streep (her daughter Grace Gummer plays one of the 3 insane women). The slew of familiar faces actually detracted from the story for me, because the Swank and Jones characters just couldn’t hold my attention.

The ending seems quite odd and a bit out of place for what we have just watched, and I’m still confused by the line of dialogue addressing the difficult “winter” they must have had on the wagon trip … it’s clearly stated that the trip began in May and would take a few weeks. Even in Nebraska, May and June can’t be considered winter. If you enjoy Hilary Swank on a soapbox or Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig, then perhaps the pieces will fit better for you than they did for me.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are intrigued by a long, mostly uneventful wagon trip where 3 of the 5 people don’t speak and one rarely shuts up.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig (twice) or Hilary Swank playing air piano just aren’t enough to pull you away from holiday shopping.

watch the trailer:

 

 


KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

October 13, 2014

kill the mesenger Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those true stories that probably works better as a drama than as a documentary. Jeremy Renner brings passion and believability to his role as infamous journalist Gary Webb. This allows us to gain insight into Mr. Webb as a father, husband and man, rather than only as a fiery investigative reporter.

You likely recall Webb’s published story (San Jose Mercury News) from 1996, when his research uncovered the likelihood that cocaine imported into the US was sold as crack cocaine and the profits had funded arms for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the prior decade. The kicker being that the CIA was well aware of these activities.

The film presents Webb as an idealist, too naive to comprehend that the story would have ramifications to his employer, his family and his self. The use of actual news footage adds a dose of reality, as does the inclusion of Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, John Kerry … and even the role Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky played in outshining the ultimate redemption of Webb’s work.

The underlying message here … beyond the governmental cover-up … is the lack of a truly free press. Of course, the issue remains front and center today, but in this particular instance, it’s surprising to see the influence and pressure applied by outside forces. It’s further proof that any hope for checks and balances from our news outlets was snuffed out many years ago.

The movie is based on two books: Gary Webb’s own “Dark Alliance” and Nick Shou’s “Kill the Messenger”. The frustration as a viewer is derived from the fragmented presentation brought on by steady stream of new characters who mostly appear in only one or maybe two scenes. The list of known actors is impressive: Rosemary DeWitt, Oliver Platt, Robert Patrick, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Barry Pepper, Michael Kenneth Williams, Andy Garcia, Gil Bellows, Lucas Hedges, Richard Schiff, and Ray Liotta. That should help explain what I mean by fragmented.

The story is an important one and the film is worth seeing. Director Michael Cuesta’s approach makes it impossible to not think of All the President’s Men while watching. The Granddaddy of crusading journalism continues to produce heirs … those that are a black eye for the newspaper industry and our government.

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LINCOLN (2012)

November 19, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The movie lover in me has been anxiously awaiting this one for months. On the other hand, as a citizen, the recent Presidential campaign antics put me in quite the political funk. Tired of the rhetoric and disenchanted with the current leadership, I was concerned my thoughts might poison the outlook on director Steven Spielberg‘s latest. Fortunately, both Lincoln and Lincoln allowed me to forget those in charge today, and instead witness the look and feel of true leadership and greatness.

Despite the title, this is not simply a biographical sketch of our 16th President. Rather, it’s an essay on back room politics … the key to Washington and democracy. Deal-cutting, horse-trading, arm-twisting are just some of the strategies involved in reaching compromise. When the stakes are history … abolishing slavery … the passion of those unseen actions is intensified. We see a man at the height of his power willing to do what is necessary to reach a goal in which he fervently believes – even though his views are not shared by a great many others.  Ratifying the 13th Amendment could have been quite dry in lesser hands, but Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis are experts at what they do.

Some of the most fun in the film occurs during the House floor debates between Republicans and Democrats. These scenes serve as a reminder that the two parties are often at philosophical odds and, just as designed, debate and discussion lead to compromise and advancement. At least that’s the general idea and purpose. Next to Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, err, embodiment of Lincoln, the script is what really jumped out at me. Loosely based on “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tony Kushner’s screenplay serves up dialogue that is sharp, crisp, entertaining, thought-provoking and filled with message. This is a very talky film, not a Civil War film. We only get a couple of brief battlefield scenes, but the conversations never allow us to forget that the brutal war is always on the mind of the politicians and citizens. Some of the theatricality teeters closely to the look and feel of a play, though it is quite effective for the ongoing politicking. I hope Kushner’s work is remembered come Oscar time … especially for the way he worked in the full text for both the Gettysburg Address and the 13th Amendment.

I’ve always held a certain fascination with Abraham Lincoln. Familiarity with with the legends, the icon, the monuments, the statues, even the automatronics at Disney World so many years ago.  It is with true awe that I recognize what Daniel Day-Lewis delivers. His presence is so powerful that I found it all but impossible to look at anything else when he was on screen. That will certainly mandate a second viewing, but I have no hesitancy in recommending a film that brings to life what a great man can be … what true leadership can be. This is a man who carries his burdens in his soul. He may have been self-educated, but in addition to Shakespeare and Euclid, Mr. Lincoln understood people. That knowledge allowed him to maintain his high principles through patience and reasoning and even (sometimes) humorous story-telling.

 We are never allowed to forget that this is a Spielberg movie. The scenes with Lincoln and Mary Todd (Sally Field) are somewhat distracting to the greater stories, but perhaps that’s the point. These discussions were distractions to him as well. In fact, Spielberg is quite kind to Mary Todd Lincoln. Other tales have not been. Either way, Ms. Field is effective, though I wish for the sake of the film, she had less screen time.

The supporting cast is a who’s who of character actors. Most won’t be named here but Tommy Lee Jones is a key player as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, a radical abolitionist; David Strathairn as Sec of State William Steward has Lincoln’s trust; Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln’s son; and Jackie Earle Haley plays the Confederate VP Alexander Stevens. There is also a tribunal of political lobbyists or fixers that add quite the element of dirty-politics: James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson.  Appomattox is handled with class – a quick scene showing a prideful General Robert E Lee departing, and we get a couple of scenes with General Ulysses S Grant (Jared Harris).

 Lastly, the score from the great John Williams excels and compliments the mood and pace of the story … he is careful to never overwhelm. Williams is probably in line for his 48th Oscar nomination (second only to Walt Disney). Though I wish it had ended with the scene depicted at left, this is a film about political process and the people who made that process work – even at a time when everyone thought the choice had to be made between ending the war and abolishing slavery. Choose one, you can’t have both. Abraham Lincoln proved that sometimes the right man is in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, those times come around very rarely.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you too want to be mesmerized by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln OR you like your history lessons to be entertaining and easy on the eyes

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your history to come straight from the textbooks with little more than a few photographs for prosperity OR you don’t like Sally Field.  You really don’t like her.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJVuqYkI2jQ