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!

Horror Film Review: Stir of Echoes (dir by David Koepp)


It’s blue collar horror!

As the 1999 film Stir of Echoes shows, ghost don’t only haunt the rich and famous.  Sometimes, they haunt ordinary guys who live paycheck to paycheck and just want to be able to take some pride in having a home that’s free of secrets and evil spirits.  “Ghosts, they’re a real pain the ass sometimes, y’know what I’m saying?”

For instance, in Stir of Echoes, Kevin Bacon plays Tom Witzky.  Tom is a phone lineman who lives in Chicago.  Tom wishes that he could have been something more than a phone lineman.  He wishes that his band could have taken off and he could have been a rock star.  But, now Tom’s reached his 40s, he’s got a wife named Maggie (Kathryn Erbe), a son named Jake (Zachary David Kope), and another child on the way.  So, he works hard and then he comes home and he has a beer and sometimes, he might go to a high school football game.  It’s not a glamorous life but at least it’s something with which Tom can be happy.

Of course, then Tom makes the mistake of going to a party that’s being given by his friend, Frank (Kevin Dunn).  When Maggie’s sister-in-law, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), says that she knows how to hypnotize people, Tom scoffs and challenges her to hypnotize him.  Lisa does so and, the next thing that Tom knows, he’s sitting there with tears in his eyes and everyone laughing at him.  Even though it was only a few seconds to Tom, he was apparently under hypnosis for quite a while.  He talked about being bullied as a child.  He stuck a safety pin through his hand.  He even accepted Lisa’s suggestion that he “try to be more open-minded.”  Upset over being revealed to be vulnerable, Tom leaves the party.

Tom soon learns what it means, in his case, to be more open-minded.  Soon, Tom is hearing voices and seeing what appears to be the ghost of a teenage girl in his house.  He starts to have disturbing and violent visions.  When Tom tries to pretend that nothing’s wrong, Jake tells him that it’s okay because he can see the ghost as well.

Growing obsessed with his visions, Tom is soon tearing his own house apart in an attempt to discover what the spirits are trying to tell him.  Is Tom truly seeing ghosts or, as so many in the neighborhood suspect, is he losing his mind?

When I first started rewatching Stir of Echoes for this review, I have to admit that I was a little bit concerned.  Kevin Bacon is one of the most likable actors on the planet and this film is usually cited as featuring one of his best performances but, in the first few scenes, he seemed to be almost going a little overboard with the whole “I’m just a working class guy” routine.  But, as the film progressed, I actually came to realize that Kevin Bacon was giving a brilliant performance.  The fact that he played Tom as being so rational and almost boring during the first half of the movie made it all the more effective when he started tearing his house apart during the second.  During those scenes, Bacon plays Tom as not only someone obsessed with discovering the truth but also as someone who just wants his life to be normal again.  If he has to destroy his life to get it back, that’s what he’s going to do.

(That said, my favorite character in the film was Lisa, mostly because we share the same name and she was played by the brilliant Illeana Douglas.  The thing I loved about Lisa is that, when she was informed that she had messed up Tom’s mind, she was both sorry and proud of herself at the same time.)

Stir of Echoes is still a frightening film, one with plenty of jump scares and a subtext of paranoia as it’s revealed that both the neighborhood and Tom’s friends are full of secrets.  Because they both came out in 1999, it often gets compared to The Sixth Sense.  I like The Sixth Sense but I actually prefer Stir of Echoes, just because it’s not quite as self-important as M. Night Shyamalan’s film.  The makers of Stir of Echoes didn’t set out to change the world.  They just wanted to make a scary ghost story and they succeeded.

 

A Movie A Day #69: Intersection (1994, directed by Mark Rydell)


This one is just dumb.

Vincent Eastman (Richard Gere) and his wife, Sally (Sharon Stone), own an architectural firm.  Vincent is supposed to be creative and passionate but mostly he’s just Richard Gere in mom jeans.  Sally is a brilliant businesswoman but she is also emotionally repressed to the point of being frigid.  Vincent eventually starts having an affair with a travel writer named Olivia (Lolita Davidovich), who is everything that Sally is not.  Despite Martin Landau telling him that he has to make a decision because, and I quote, “Keep everything under one roof. That’s a basic rule of architecture,” Vincent cannot choose between his hateful wife and his loving mistress.  First he writes a letter to Olivia, telling her that he can not leave his wife.  Then, he sees a little girl who, like Olivia, has curly red hair and he takes that as a sign that he should leave his wife.  He calls Olivia and leaves a gushing message on her machine, telling her that he’s leaving Sally.  But before the letter is sent or the message is heard, Vincent is in a car crash that leaves him in a coma.  As both his wife and his mistress wait outside his hotel room, Vincent has visions of his two lovers swimming by him and struggles to decide who to follow.  Even in a coma, Vincent is an indecisive prick.

Intersection was on HBO while I was sick.  I watched it and it just made me feel worse.  Intersection was made during a weird period of time when Richard Gere was a romantic star and Sharon Stone was trying to prove that she was a serious actress.  Stone lobbied to be cast against type as Sally but she plays the role as so hard and bitchy that there’s never any question as to whether or not Vincent should leave her for Olivia.  Lolitia Davidovich (whatever happened to her?) does what she can with Olivia but the character never has any existence beyond her relationship with Vincent.  As for Richard Gere, when he starts hyperventilating about seeing a little girl who looks like his mistress, you’ll want to report him to social services.

Sadly, Intersection was directed by Mark Rydell and written by Marshall Brickman, two people who did great work before Intersection and have done very little since.

Happy Birthday, Clint Eastwood!


Painting by Ryan Gajda

Painting by Ryan Gajda

Happy 85th birthday to director, actor, and jazz musician Clint Eastwood!  Here are a few Clint Eastwood inspired paintings to help you get into the birthday spirit!

Painting by Allen Glass

Painting by Allen Glass

Painting by Andrew Read

Painting by Andrew Read

Painting by Nino Vecia

Painting by Nino Vecia

Painting by Dave Walker

Painting by Dave Walker

Painting by Jim Blanchard

Painting by Jim Blanchard

Painting by Jennifer Morrison

Painting by Jennifer Morrison

Painting by Alexey Kurbatov

Painting by Alexey Kurbatov

Painting by David Dunne

Painting by David Dunne

good-morning-clint-eastwood-nop-briex

Painting by Nop Briex

Painting by Steve Payne

Painting by Steve Payne