Monthly Archives: November 2019

D.C. Drama

Adam Driver drives home timely message in true tale of Washington corruption

TTR_0542.dngThe Report
Starring Adam Driver & Annette Bening
PG-13
Directed by Scott Z. Burns

The Report is a crackling political-intrigue thriller about how the U.S. Senate spent years dogging the CIA about the agency’s covert use of torture to extract information from detainees after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s a true story, and it centers around a young Senate staffer, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), and his painstaking, five-year crusade to comb through more than six million online documents for a study that the CIA—not surprisingly—did everything it could to quash.

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Annette Bening is Sen. Dianne Feinstein

Working under the direction of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) in a windowless, bunker-like basement office, Jones and his small team discover a web of deceit, deception and cover-up. It’s all linked to the CIA’s “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (EIT), an outsourced paramilitary program of extreme human-rights abuse, including waterboarding, sexual humiliation, mock burial, sensory deprivation, beatings and enemas. The agency used the techniques in attempts to force “confessions” from more than 100 Middle Eastern men whom it suspected might have ties to the 9/11 terrorism, or information about upcoming attacks.

When Jones completes his nearly 7,000-page report, it concludes that not a single one of the detainees coughed up any credible information—and one died, in effect tortured to death. Not only did the CIA violate time-honored, international Geneva Conventions principles about human rights and treatment of prisoners, but its multimillion-dollar EIT program failed to produce any useful information, contrary to everything the agency had told—and sold—the public about its so-called “War on Terror.”

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Jon Hamm plays the White House Chief of Staff.

The head of the CIA (Ted Levine) does everything he can to discredit Feinstein, Jones and the report. The White House chief of staff (Jon Hamm) isn’t really interested; he has bigger election-year fish to fry. And Jones finds himself the target of criminal charges when the CIA turns the tables in a nasty twist that illustrates just how down-and-dirty Washington politics can be.

Matthew Rhys, channeling some of the stealth he cultivated playing a KGB spy on six seasons of TV’s The Americans, has a couple of scenes as a New York Times political reporter who cautions Jones about going public with his findings. “Some people will think you’re a hero,” he tells him, “and some will probably think you’re a traitor.”

Fans of TV’s Dexter will enjoy seeing Dexter himself, Michael C. Hall, as a toe-the-line CIA staffer, along with The Affair’s Maura Tierney. Tim Blake Nelson plays a military physician with objections about the abuse he’s witnessing. A high-end lawyer friend (Corey Stoll) gives Jones some free advice, telling the young Senate staffer that he can’t even begin to afford the super-expensive legal help he’s going to need.

But the real star of the show, clearly, is Driver. After a string of solid roles—in films including BlacKkKlansman, Logan Lucky, Inside Llewyn Davis, Lincoln, Frances Ha, Paterson, as Kylo Ren in the Star Wars franchise, and a heart-rending co-lead opposite Scarlett Johansson in this year’s acclaimed Marriage Story—he’s now a sturdy leading mainstream man. With no car chases, foot races, spaceships, explosions or gunfire, the “action” in The Report often plays out in the features on Driver’s expressive face, a long, oval pallet—the glowering intensity of his dark eyes, the scowling frown of his lips—for the dueling cross-currents of passion, fatigue and frustration that defined a trying half-decade of Daniel Jones’ life.

TTR_1308.dngAfter crafting top-notch screenplays for other fact-based films, including The Informant! and Contagion, plus The Bourne Ultimatum, Scott Z. Burns—who also wrote this screenplay—makes his major-feature directing debut, and it’s a zinger. He builds a dense, immersive drama out of real-life characters and events from the not-so-distant past, cracking into the maddening machinations of Washington to unravel a chronic chain of corrosion and corruption under the George W. Bush administration—and he doesn’t let W’s successor, Barack Obama, completely off the hook, either.

The Report is a movie about big issues that matter, things that resonate beyond the scope of its story—about “who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be,” to quote from a clip the movie uses from the late Sen. John McCain. And it’s impossible to miss its connections to contemporary events, especially given all the drama, controversy and constant news churn created by the current White House administration. When the movie gets around to whistleblowers, blocks of blacked-out, “redacted” text, elected officials who act not because of right or wrong, but because it’s what they think will help them win votes and elections… As the saying goes, what goes around, comes around.

“You ever wonder why history repeats itself?” asks Bening’s character, Sen. Feinstein. “It’s because we don’t listen the first time.”

History may repeat itself, but The Report suggests that, hopefully, there will always be someone, like Daniel Jones, to remind everyone the importance of listening, remembering—and never giving up in the fight for what’s right, especially against a system that seems impossibly stacked, packed and racked against them.

“You can’t torture people, lie about it and hide it from history,” Jones says. Thanks to his report, this story didn’t end that way. And thanks to The Report, we have Adam Driver in a great movie that shows just what a finessed, finely tuned, focused—and perhaps award-winning—actor he’s become.

In select theaters Nov. 15, 2019

A New Mob-Sterpiece

Director Martin Scorsese’s sprawling, epic, all-star gangster’s paradise 

Irishman 1 (72)

The Irishman
Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci & Al Pacino
Directed by Martin Scorsese
R

The old man in the nursing home doesn’t look dangerous, but he’s a stone-cold killer.

Or at least he used to be. He’s Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who gave up a job driving a meat truck to work for the mob, and now he’s outlived—literally—everyone he used to know.

That’s the terrific opening—a brilliant, extended tracking shot, scored to The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night”—of director Martin Scorsese’s sprawling new gangster opus The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro as Sheeran and featuring a who’s who of other mobster-movie all-stars.

Scorsese, of course, is the maestro of mob cinema, from Mean Streets to Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed. This one marks his ninth collaboration with De Niro, and his third with Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement to work again with the Oscar-winning director and with De Niro, his frequent costar.

Pesci plays Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino, who takes a liking to Frank as a younger man and ushers him into his crime family in the 1960s, beginning with smaller jobs that eventually lead to bigger—more dangerous, and more deadly—assignments.

The story is based on Charles Brant’s true-crime book I Heard You Paint Houses, which is actually a biography of Sheeran’s life of crime. The phrase is mob shorthand for inquiring about hiring a hitman, without actually having to come right out and ask him to kill someone. Frank becomes Russell Bufalino’s “house painter,” spattering walls, sidewalks and other surfaces bright red with blood.

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Al Pacino (left) plays Jimmy Hoffa, and Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) becomes his right-hand man in the powerful Teamsters Union.

The movie itself spans some five decades as it unspools the story of Frank, Russell and their intersection with the events of the turbulent 1960s and ‘70s, particularly as it pertains to the powerful Teamsters Union and its bombastic president, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, who’s two-time Godfather royalty, but—amazingly—never until now worked with Scorsese). Things start to get tense when Hoffa and the Teamsters begin to get sideways with the mob, and Frank—himself a Teamster, who’s been anointed Hoffa’s bodyguard and confidante—is caught in the squeeze.

Hoffa’s “disappearance” in 1975 was one of the biggest news events of the decade, especially since his body was never found and it was widely presumed that he was murdered. Brandt’s book—and The Irishman—have a tidy answer for what happened, but I won’t give it away here.

At three and a half hours, The Irishman fills out its epic proportions with epic performances and some of Scorsese’s best, most profound filmmaking—the signature cinematic touches of a master coming home again, working in his gangster-paradise element, and finding new depth, emotional richness and insightful resonance in old, familiar themes. Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, Pacino—you’ll never see these four lions roar like this again. This is Scorsese’s mobster-movie masterpiece, and a masterpiece in general. There’s no question it’s the year’s big-event movie.

This mob-life master class has it all, from quick, bloody, spasmic bursts of violence to long-game extortion squeezes; we learn the infrastructure of organized crime from the ground up. But the bloodshed is never gratuitous; it’s always “business.” One “hit” we see takes three minutes to explain and set up, in narration, and less than five seconds to execute. Most of the “house painting” is over in one, two or three quick, clean pops.

But make no mistake about it. These wise guys may be “businessmen,” they may be family men with wives and kids, they may cross paths with priests, politicians and even presidents. But they’re doing profane, down-and-dirty work, and they’re living in the shadowy underbelly of society, where it’s only a matter of time before the end comes for them, one way or another.

The movie has no less than three scenes of baptism, one wedding, and one scene that’s a symbolic “communion,” when Frank and Russell break bread, dip it into glasses of wine—and seal what will become their lifelong bond. But make no mistake about it: Theirs is an unholy bond, and nothing good can ever come from it.

You’ve probably heard about the high-tech, computerized and highly complicated “de-aging” technology that allows the actors to play themselves across the years, or the decades. It’s pretty amazing, but after a while you stop thinking about it—it’s just the magic of the movies.

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De Niro and Pacino (right) with Jesse Plemons (left) and Ray Romano as their character react to news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

The cast also includes a bunch of other recognizable—non-de-aged—faces, including Jesse Plemons, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Jack Huston. Anna Paquin plays Franks daughter, Peggy (played as a child by Lucy Gallina). Peggy has very few lines, but her disapproving, disappointed eyes broadcast a spectrum of emotion about the chasm that eventually comes between her and her father over his violent lifestyle.

The other females in the movie aren’t given much to do, or say, either—because the film, like the mob it depicts, was a man’s world. And The Irishman shows us that the men who choose to live its life of crime—though it may be “glamorized” in the movies—have a high job-related mortality rate. People who paint houses often end up covered in paint. Those who live by the sword, as the saying goes, often die by it.

Unless, against the odds, they live to face another fate—old age, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, last rites, nursing homes. They may play wheelchair bocce ball in a freezing courtyard, or remember fondly how much they liked someone they had to murder, or dip pieces of cheap prison bread in grape juice—in a melancholy bookend moment to that “communion” scene earlier.

But still, the Grim Reaper will surely come, to paint his own house, and all they can do is wait, and wait, and wait on the creeping darkness of the night, and hold on to whatever sliver of light is left, in a world they’ve help to make all the darker.

In select theaters Nov. 1, 2019 (and on Netflix Nov. 27)

Freedom Fighter

From postage stamp to the big screen…and it’s about damn time.

HARRIET

Harriet
Starring Cynthia Erivo, Joe Alwyn & Janelle Monáe
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
PG-13

Maybe you’ve seen her on a postage stamp. Now you can watch her on a movie screen.

Harriet is the first major theatrical biopic about Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist who freed herself as well as hundreds of her fellow slaves, led an armed regimen in the Civil War and became an icon of the women’s suffrage movement.

British actress and singer Cynthia Erivo gives a powerful performance as Tubman, who was born into slavery—as Araminta “Minty” Ross—on a Maryland plantation. When her sadistic young master (Joe Alwyn, from Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Favourite) separates Minty and her husband (Zackary Momoh), she knows she’s about to be sold “down the river,” to the deeper South and a much harsher life, one from which she’ll certainly never return. So she makes a daring dash for freedom, 100 miles across the border to the north and Philadelphia.

Joe Alwyn

It’s a perilous, arduous journey, but Minty makes it, indeed, following the beacon-like light of the North Star, staying ahead of baying, scent-sniffing bloodhounds and trusting in her steadfast faith. At one point, she jumps off a bridge into the rushing waters of the Delaware River, rather than surrender to slave hunters who’ve hemmed her in on both sides. “I’m gon’ be free or die,” she defiantly proclaims, plunging over the side.

That’s how the movie begins, in 1849, but—of course—there’s much more to come.

In Pennsylvania, black abolitionist organizer William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) takes Minty under his wing, and she’s given room, board and a paying job by a glamourous free-born black boardinghouse proprietor (Janelle Monáe). Told that many former slaves shed their old names and take new ones to reflect their newfound freedom, Minty gladly does so, joining together her mother’s first and her husband’s last to become Harriet Tubman.

After a few months, she begins to feel alone, especially when she thinks about all the people still living in misery, hardship and fear in the South. But it surprises everyone when Tubman says she’s going to do the unthinkable: leave the safety of her own freedom and begin making secretive return trips to bring back other slaves, starting with members of her family.

“We’re gonna need a bigger cart,” says Walter (Henry Hunter Hall), a scrappy young free black Maryland wheeler-dealer dandy who comes aboard to help Tubman’s cause. Eventually, Tubman’s plucky raids siphon so many slaves off her former plantation that it drives the manor’s toxically racist Southern-belle matriarch (country singer Jennifer Nettles) toward a nervous breakdown.

The rest is history, as they say, and the movie does a stirring job of depicting the unbridled heroism of one of America’s real heroes. There’s simply no one who did anything like Tubman did, risking her life repeatedly, putting herself in harm’s way time after time for others, committing herself to a fiercely audacious lifetime loop of extraordinary courage, bravery and flinty resolve.

Director and cowriter Kasi Lemmons (whose previous work includes Eve’s Bayou, Black Nativity and Talk to Me) tends to lapse at times into some clumsy, distracting craftsmanship—like jarring, confusing, black-and-white flashbacks, and swells of soundtrack music that rush in to flood scenes with emotional cues instead of letting what’s happening onscreen hammer the drama home. But those are minor criticisms for such a major moviemaking milestone.

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Cynthia Erivo isn’t exactly a marquee name, but she’s already won a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy—all for her starring role in The Color Purple on Broadway—and appeared in the movies Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale. Harriet makes great use of her tremendous singing talent by integrating it into scenes that show how songs were part of the fabric of slave communities, and how Tubman sang as “code” to communicate.

The movie also shows how Harriet “communicates” with God—or at least thinks she does. Were her fainting spells really some mystical kind of divine premonitions, blackout moments during which she received heavenly direction and instruction? Or were they the results of long-term, seizure-like brain damage from getting her skull cracked open by a cruel plantation master as a child? The movie never takes a definitive side, but it does depict Tubman as righteously, rigidly religious, unwavering in her belief that something from above was literally guiding her life below.

On her first exuberant footsteps into freedom, across the open border to Pennsylvania, her chaperone—a gentle Dutch farmer—asks if she’d like him to accompany her. No need, she says, “I walk with the Lord.”

While not as intense in its depiction of the atrocities of slavery as 12 Years a Slave (2013), Harriet pointedly reminds us again of the wretchedness of an institution that—once upon a time in America, and not so long ago—legalized the treatment of a group of people as property that could be bought, sold, starved, beaten, abused, even killed.

And it reminds us of the amazing, intensely inspiring accomplishments of a woman who’s already made her mark in the history books—and, since 1978, on postage stamps. (But in 2017, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin shot down plans to put her on the $20 bill.) Some things take time, as Harriet Tubman knew—maybe a lifetime, maybe even more. But Tubman’s remarkable achievements will live forever, and Harriet finally, fittingly frames her story in the big, oversized Hollywood dimensions it has long deserved.

“God has shown me the future,” Tubman decrees. “And my people are free!

Amen to that!

In theaters Nov. 1, 2019