Ghosts of Sundance Past #2: The Report (dir by Scott Z. Burns)


Remember The Report?

The Report premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was a hit with the critics who saw it.  Amazon acquired the distribution rights and, for the first part of 2019, The Report was one of those films that was regularly discussed as being a potential Oscar nominee.  Not only was it based on a true story but it starred Adam Driver and Annette Bening.  There are several online film critics and award bloggers who are convinced that any film featuring Annette Bening will automatically be an Oscar contender, despite the fact that it rarely seems to work out that way.

Certainly, that ended up being the case with The Report.  Despite all of the hype from Sundance, The Report kind of fizzled when it was finally released.  That it didn’t do much business at the box office makes sense because it was only given a limited release and everyone knew that it would soon be available to stream on Prime.  But even after it was made available on Prime, The Report never really seemed to make much of a dent in the public consciousness.  When the Oscar nominations were announced, The Report was not mentioned once.  Adam Driver did receive a nomination for Best Actor but it was for Marriage Story.

What happened to The Report?  It may have been too low-key for audiences (and, let’s be honest, critics) who have come to expect even a movie about a Senate committee to be experimental and overly stylized.  It could be that, even though the film was critical of the CIA and the War on Terror, it wasn’t angry enough for the same people who thought Adam McKay’s Vice was a brilliantly conceived work of political cinema.  A more realistic explanation is probably that, in this hyper political age, people didn’t want to watch a 2-hour movie about a senate staffer.  Instead, people wanted an escape from all that.

It’s understandable but it’s also a shame because The Report is a very good film.  I mean, I usually hate films like this but I was surprised by how much I liked it.

The Report deals with the efforts of Senate staffer Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) and the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate the CIA’s use of torture in the aftermath of 9-11.  Skipping back and forth through time, the film shows us how Jones was first assigned to lead an investigation into the CIA’s activities in 2005 and how, over the course of seven years, Jones puts together not one but two reports that absolutely nobody wants released.  Along the way, Jones goes from being a generally idealistic and optimistic staffer to eventually becoming the type of paranoid and obsessive man who meets with reporters in underground garages and who considers leaking classified information.  Daniel has what he believes to be proof that using torture is not only unethical but also counter-productive but, as he discovers, even the members of his own political party aren’t particularly interested in releasing his report.  Adam Driver gives a memorably intense performance of Daniel, playing him as someone whose obsession with his report sometimes threatens to push him over the edge and transform him from being a crusader to being a zealot.

Annette Bening plays Daniel’s boss, Sen. Dianne Feinstein.  It’s interesting casting and, to be honest, it doesn’t quite work.  I almost feel like it would have been better for the film to have either kept Feinstein off-screen or to have at least minimized her role.  The problem is that Dianne Feinstein is a widely-known figure and it’s jarring to see Annette Bening, another well-known figure (at least among film fans), in the role.  Bening plays Feinstein as being a ethical and serious-minded stateswoman and she does what she can with what the film gives her but, at the same time, it’s still kind of a boring performance.  The film presents Feinstein, a not uncontroversial figure, in a positive light and I’m sure some, on both the Right and the Left would say that it’s perhaps a bit too positive.  One gets the feeling that Feinstein’s main role in the film is to assure us that the system works but we just have to take one look at Adam Driver losing his mind to realize that it doesn’t.

That misstep aside, The Report still works far better than I was expecting it too.  Taking obvious inspiration from All The President’s Men, Scott Z. Burns directs the film as if it were a thriller and the deeper that Adam Driver gets into his research, the darker and more shadowy Washington D.C. seems to become.  Even though the film clearly has an agenda, Burns gives the other side a chance to make their case without presenting them as being cartoonish villains.  In other words, this is the opposite of an Aaron Sorkin or Adam McKay-style diatribe.  Instead, this is an intelligent movie about intelligent people.  It’s a film that makes some of the same points as many other similarly liberal films but it makes them without taking cheap shots or resorting to a heavy hand. Long after Vice has been forgotten, The Report will be remembered.

And, if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s on Prime!

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: Amadeus (dir by Milos Forman)


The 1984 film Amadeus is about a man who learns, after it’s a bit too late to really do anything about it, that he is thoroughly mediocre.

When we first meet Antonio Salieri (played by F. Murray Abraham), he’s an old man who has been confined to a mental asylum because he attempted to slit his own throat.  What should drive Salieri — a respected, if not particularly beloved, composer in 18th Century Vienna — to attempt to take his own life?  As he explains it to Father Vogler (Richard Frank), it’s the guilt of knowing that he’s responsible for death of the greatest composer of all time, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

When Mozart (Tom Hulce) first showed up in Vienna, Salieri was already the court composer to the thoroughly vacuous Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones).  At the time, Salieri believed himself to be a genius touched by God.  As he recounts to Father Vogler, he prayed to God when he was a boy and he struck what he believed was an ironclad deal.  God would make Salieri a great composer and Salieri would remain a faithful believer.

But then Mozart shows up and, from the minute that he first hears one of Mozart’s compositions, Salieri realizes that Mozart is the one who has been blessed with genius.  Mozart is the one who is writing the music that will be remembered for the rest of time, long after Salieri and all of his other rival composers have been forgotten.  Upon first hearing Mozart, Salieri suddenly realizes that he has been betrayed by God.  He is a mediocre talent and he’s always been a mediocre talent.

The worst part of it is not just that Mozart’s a genius.  It’s also that Mozart knows he’s a genius.  He’s a bit of a brat as well, with a remarkably annoying laugh and vulgar manners that scandalize proper society.  Despite the efforts of his rivals to dismiss his talent, Mozart is beloved by the common people.  He’s an 18th century rock star and it seems as if no amount of scandal and petty jealousy can slow him down.  Even worse, the emperor takes a interest in Mozart and commissions him — and not Salieri — to write an opera.

Rejecting a God that he feels has betrayed him, Salieri plots Mozart’s downfall….

Goddamn, this is a great movie.  Seriously, everything about Amadeus works.

The ornate sets and the costumes not only wonderful to look at but they also actually tell us something about the characters who inhabit them.  One look at the beautiful but cluttered home that Mozart shares with his wife, Constanze (Elisabeth Berridge), tells you almost everything you need to know about not only Mozart’s tastes (which are expensive) but also his talent (which is undisciplined but also limitless).  The empty-headedness of Emperor Joseph is perfectly mirrored by the pretty but uninspired decor of his court while the grubby chaos of the mental asylum seems to have sprung straight from Salieri’s tortured soul.  As visualized in Amadeus, there’s a cold beauty to Vienna, one that is fascinating but, at the same time, menacing.  As for the costumes, Mozart’s powdered wig somehow seems to be brighter than everyone else’s and his colorful wardrobe demands your attention.  Meanwhile, when a costumed and masked Salieri shows up at Mozart’s door, he’s like the Grim Reaper coming to collect a soul.

The witty script is full of sharp lines and director Milos Forman does a wonderful job of balancing comedy and drama.  The scenes involving Joseph II are frequently hilarious and Jeffrey Jones does a great job of portraying Joseph as essentially being a very influential dunce.  The scene where Joseph tells Mozart that he liked his latest composition but that “there are simply too many notes” is a classic and one to which any artist, whether they’re Mozart or not, will be able to relate.  (“Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”)

The film is dominated by the performances of F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce.  Hulce is wonderfully flamboyant in the early part of the film and, bravely, he doesn’t shy away from portraying Mozart as occasionally being a bit of a spoiled brat.  It’s not just that Mozart can be annoying.  It’s also that he’s often deliberately annoying.  When we first see Mozart, it’s easy to understand why his very existence so grated on Salieri’s nerves and why Salieri considers him to be an “obscene child.”  But as the film progresses, Hulce lets us in and we come to see that Mozart is actually a very vulnerable young man.  When his disapproving father (Roy Dotrice) comes to visit, we suddenly understand both why Mozart is so driven to succeed but also why he is so instinctively self-destructive.

Meanwhile, F. Murray Abraham — well, what can I say about this performance?  In the role of Salieri, Abraham gives one of the greatest film performances of all time.  In many ways, Abraham has a tougher job than Hulce.  If Hulce has to convince us that Mozart has been touched by genius despite the dumb things that he often does, Abraham has to make petty jealousy compelling.  And somehow, Abraham manages to do just that.  Whereas the role of Mozart allows Hucle to wear his emotions on the surface, Abraham has to play a character who keeps most of his thoughts and impulses hidden and the fact that we end up understanding Salieri (if never actually sympathizing with him) is a testament to F. Murray Abraham’s skill as an actor.  Abraham won the Oscar for Best Actor for his work in Amadeus and it was more than deserved.

At the end of the film, Salieri declares himself to be the patron saint of mediocrities and, to a large extent, that’s what sets Amadeus apart from other biopics.  Most people are mediocre.  Most people are not going to end their life as a Mozart.  They’re going to end their life as a Salieri or worse.  This is one of the few films to be made about a runner-up.  It’s interesting to note that, even though the film is more about Salieri than Mozart, it’s still called Amadeus.  It’s not named Antonio or Salieri.  Even in a film made about Salieri, Mozart is advertised as the main attraction.

(It should also be noted that many historians believe that Salieri and Mozart were actually fairly friendly acquaintances and that, beyond the normal rivalry that any two artists would feel, neither held any significant ill will towards the other.  In other words, enjoy Amadeus as an outstanding piece of cinema but don’t necessarily mistake it for historical fact.)

Along with Abraham’s victory, Amadeus also won Best Picture of the year.  Of the nominees, it certainly deserved it.  (My pick for the best film of 1984 is Once Upon A Time In America with Amadeus as a close second.)  It’s a great film and one that definitely deserves to be watched and rewatched.

Outlaw Justice (1999, directed by Bill Corcoran)


During the closing days of the old west, the evil Holden (Sancho Garcia) guns down retired outlaw, Tobey Naylor (Waylon Jennings).  Tobey’s son, Bryce (Chad Willett), is determined to get revenge so he teams up with three members of Tobey’s old gang, Lee Walker (Willie Nelson), Jesse Ray Torrance (Kris Kristofferson), and Sheriff Dalton (Travis Tritt).  They ride into Mexico, searching for one final shootout.  Along the way, they befriend the locals, find time to rebuild a burned-out church, and bicker like aging gunslingers in a Larry McMurtry novel.  Chad Willett and Willie Nelson also find time to fall in love with local women because, obviously, the entire film can’t just be gunfights and church-building.

Outlaw Justice is a standard western, which is distinguished only by the casting of the pioneers of outlaw country music as actual outlaws.  Since this was made during the Lonesome Dove-Unforgiven era of westerns, there’s some talk about how Lee and Jesse Ray are past their prime but otherwise, it’s an angle that largely left unexplored.  Of the singers, Kris Kristoffeson and Travis Tritt are probably the best actors but Willie Nelson seems to be having the most fun.  (Nelson has enough natural charisma that he can get away with a lot.)  If you’re a fan of westerns who doesn’t demand too much from the movie you’re watching, Outlaw Justice will probably be entertaining enough.  Otherwise, it’s pretty forgettable.

Music Video of the Day: Boneless by Steve Aoki, Chris Lake & Tujamo (2013, dir by Peter Falloon)


Watch this video and learn from it!

When these two fashionably-clad gangs had a disagreement in the 1980s, they didn’t settle things with violence.  Well, okay — they probably did sometimes.  In fact, things get a little bit heated in this video and I’m sure some people would argue that the only reason things didn’t get bad (I mean like, West Side Story bad) is because everyone knew that they were being filmed for prosperity.

Anyway, instead of having a rumble (which may sound silly but is still a lot of fun to say), they had a skate-off!  And then they all jumped up into the air!  Yay!  Everyone’s a winner even though we know that can’t be true because, just by definition, no one can win unless someone else loses.  That’s just the way it goes.

Anyway, this is a fun little video and all the gang members look crazy hot with their skateboards and their headbands and their whole neon attitude.  This video was shot in Venice Beach and the director was Peter Falloon, who apparently directed a lot of skating videos back in the 80s.  My favorite thing about this video is that it really does look like something that was taken off of a crappy VHS tape.  You can even tell when the tape’s owner rewound certain scenes and then watched them over and over again.

Anyway, what more can I say about this one?  It’s fun and really, for me, that’ the most important thing about any music video.  Did I enjoy watching it?  Did I actually force myself to concentrate on only doing one thing for three minute so that I could enjoy the video?  In this case, the answer is yes.

So, yay!

Enjoy!