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!

Trailer: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Official)


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

One of my most-anticipated films this summer of 2014 has released it’s latest trailer and it shows the central conflict which will drive this sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

It’s been many years since the pandemic from the “simian flu” tore through the planet as shown during the end credits of the first film. Now the surviving humans must now contend with the growing population of hyper-intelligent apes led by Caesar from the first film.

While the first film showed the rise of Caesar as a revolutionary leader it looks like this sequel will now put him in the role of war leader as his apes must now gear up for a war with the surviving humans that can’t seem to be avoided.

Plus, all I can say is this: Apes on horses with assault rifles.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is set for a July 11, 2014 release date.

Trailer: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

To say that 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes went a long way in washing out the taste out of fans mouth after having seen Tim Burton’s reboot of Planet of the Apes would be an understatement. Rupert Wyatt was able to bring the franchise back to prominence by actually treating the story as a sort of scifi allegory instead of a platform to once again exercise one’s filmmaking quirks.

It was a no-brainer that a sequel will follow up the success of the 2011 film. But with a fast-moving schedule there were several casualties. Rupert Wyatt didn’t think he had enough time to shoot the film the way he wanted to so he was replaced by Matt Reeves. James Franco is also gone from the project. Instead we get several veteran actors like Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kirk Acevedo joining Andy Serkis.

The film seems to take places a decade or so after the release of the deadly virus at the end of the first film. Humanity has survived both the virus and the wars which followed it, but civilization as we know it now are a thing of the past. With humanity trying to rebuild it must now deal with a rising nation of genetically-enhanced apes led by Andy Serkis’ Caesar. With Gary Oldman on one side seeming to be the leader of humanity’s survivors I don’t see peace as being a goal in this film.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is set for a July 11, 2014 release.

Quick Review: Contagion (dir. by Steven Soderbergh)


Note that this isn’t the only review for Contagion.

Arleigh has an in-depth review of the film, which is also available to see, whereas this is more of a summary. As it’s for the same film, I’ve used the same tags that were in Arleigh’s post.

Before I start, I have to say that I haven’t had a theatre be so quiet during a film since I went to see Mirrors, and that was because there was no one there. My showing for Contagion was packed, but no one made a sound throughout the film. I coughed twice (because I had to), and you wouldn’t believe how many heads turned in my general direction. If nothing else, it shows that the movie had some impact to the audience, and that’s always (okay, usually) interesting to see. By the time the movie is over, you will probably pay attention to how many times you touch your face or the objects around you.

If there’s one thing I can give director Steven Soderbergh, it’s that he has a great ability to work with ensemble casts. He did a great job in getting everyone to work together on the Oceans Eleven remake and sequels. He also walked away with a Best Director Oscar for Traffic. His films have the ability to avoid having his stars chew up enough screen time that they appear to be an actual center character. Catherine Zeta-Jones’ had a character who’s story was just as strong as Benecio Del Toro’s.

On this, Contagion is no different. In essence, it’s almost like watching cameos in a miniseries.

Although the film is peppered with various actors, no one person can be considered the main character of the film. Soderbergh is able to get them all to play their roles well. He and Scott Z. Burns – one of the writers on The Bourne Ultimatum and a collaborator with Soderbergh – give us a number of perspectives for this story and damn, the whole thing is very tight overall. The movie has very little wasted space.

Like the story itself, the movie moves at a great pace, opening with Elizabeth Emhoff (Gwenyth Paltrow) on her second day after exposure to the virus after returning from a trip to Hong Kong. This eventually escalates to other infections reported in other areas around the world. In an effort to contain and understand what they’re dealing with, the Center for Disease Control starts an investigation. Lead by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne), he sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minnesota to determine the scale of the problem.

In addition to the CDC’s efforts, the World Health Organization also gets involved, sending their own field agent to Hong Kong, played by Marion Cotillard. Both doctors come up with information that appear to be helpful for the overall investigation in various ways.

The other two angles in the film are through a conspiracy theory blogger / investigative reporter played by Jude Law and Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), who has to deal with the impact of his wife’s sickness. Enrico Colantoni, Brian Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, Elliot Gould and Jennifer Ehle round out the cast. It should be noted that Ehle is the daughter of Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet actress Rosemary Harris, who looks remarkably like her mother. That’s just something that caught my eye.

In terms of the Kid Factor, I would be hesitant to take kids to see this unless they had a pretty clear handle on death or getting sick. Teens and adults could probably handle the film, but anyone under than that may freak out a little. Mind you, there’s very little gore in this film. When I think about it, there’s not even a whole lot of blood. There is some violence though as the story escalates and humanity goes wild, but it’s not that far a cry from many zombie movies. It’s up to the parents discretion on whether their kids should see this.

I should also point out that the music in this film is also very good. Cliff Martinez, who also worked on the score for Drive (also out this month) did an impressive job with an electronic score that sits in the background of the film, but also fits the pacing of the film well. It’s worth giving it a listen if at all possible. This quick review was actually written to the Contagion score.

Contagion is definitely worth seeing, easily recommended, but if you happen to be particular about germs, note that this may not be the most comfortable film to watch. Don’t be shocked if you end up hugging yourself while watching this in the theatre. With Soderbergh moving away from film directing to pursue other interests, Contagion is a nice final bow to his career.

Review: Contagion (dir. by Steven Soderbergh)


In a world where almost every season news media both traditional and on-line warn the population of what could be an outbreak of a new super-virus that could cause a new pandemic similar to the Spanish Flu of 1918. This was a pandemic which occurred before transcontinental travel was the norm and the virus still managed to kill 1% of the world’s population. Now, it’s 2011 and with warnings of swine flu, bird flu, Ebola, SARS and any number of infectious diseases still in the public’s consciousness we get a new film from filmmaker Steven Soderbergh which seriously explores a world discovering a new deadly disease and how the world responds and deals with the crisis.

Contagion begins with a simple “Day 2” caption as we see one Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) awaiting her flight to board in O’Hare at Chicago. There’s a bit of character building about this character who we see as already in the early stages of what looks to be the flu. From there Soderbergh does an interesting bit where he lets the camera linger for just a split second longer whenever Beth touches something. Soderbergh does this many times that the audience will soon get used to it and forget the significance of the act. We see Beth get a ride home from a colleague back to her home where she’s welcomed home by her husband Mitch and her young son Clark who runs to her and gives her a big hug.

The story really hits the ground running as Beth and soon those she has come into contact with begin to show similar symptoms and quickly die. The CDC and it’s head administrator, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), soon begin to see a pattern to the deaths and the similarity to their symptoms. We soon see another aspect of the story begin with the arrival of Dr. Erin Mears whose job is to investigate the circumstance which seems to be leading into a cluster case starting with Beth and the area she lives in.

The third aspect of this film throws in internet news blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) who begins to suspect that several deaths around the world looks to be interconnected in someway and that the government, the CDC and the WHO (World Health Organization) are trying to hide these disturbing facts from the general public. Krumwiede becomes the purveyor of unfiltered news which seems to do more harm than good as more and more people begin to believe his conspiracy theories about what looks to be a growing global pandemic cause by an unknown virus every expert brought in to help cannot seem to figure out.

Let me just first say that to call Contagion a thriller in the traditional sense would be flimsy at best. Soderbergh and the film’s writer, Scott Z. Burns, have made a thriller but in a sense that it skews heavily on using realism and an almost docudrama style to push the film’s narrative. The thriller aspect comes from the notion that this film’s plot is not far off from actually becoming a real event. There’s no usage of dramatic tropes from past disaster and apocalyptic films to manipulate the audience. The film as a thriller would be quite mundane when stacked up against films like Outbreak and The Andromeda Strain. It’s the realness of the story, the events taking place on the screen which gives the film it’s dramatic heft.

We begin to see what Soderbergh is trying to accomplish with this film. How transcontinental travel which took weeks during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic now can spread a highly infectious disease in a manner of less than a day’s plane flight over one ocean. The film shows in disturbing detail just how easily we as a people can spread a disease just by doing the most innocuous thing like absently touching one’s face many times a minute then transferring whatever we had to any surface we touch. Contagion definitely will add to the paranoia of those who already have an unhealthy habit of disinfecting everything before they even touch it.

The film doesn’t just touch upon the medical side of solving the growing crisis, but also explores how the governmental response and sociological reaction to the epidemic. For the former we see how protocols and the need to slowly disseminate information to the public only adds to the public’s mistrust of the very agencies created to help them in case of such an event. Soderbergh doesn’t condemn or praise these agencies for their bureaucracy. We see the reason why places like the CDC take their time to finally inform the public as we get the unfiltered and manipulative news blog side of the news media in the form of Krumwiede’s blog. While he does dare to ask the questions other more traditional news organizations fail to ask he also becomes too enamored with how many people read his blog that he’s willing to manipulate the news itself in order to gain more followers.

Contagion hits the second half of the film with the world in full crisis mode and the film taking on a more apocalyptic tone. We see streets in San Francisco full of garbage bags as agencies who used to pick them up have either gone on strike or have stopped their daily runs in fear of infection. Then there are the riots at pharmacies and stores as interstate commerce grounds to a halt and no new supplies of goods and sundries make it to stores. Society itself begin to devolve as everyone and every group start to look after their own and begin to turn on others for the dwindling supplies.

It’s here in the second half that we see the film take on some of the more traditional aspects of a thriller, but even here Soderbergh doesn’t seem to want to linger on the more sensational side of the story. He continues, for good or ill, on the narrative style he began with and that’s to see the epidemic from beginning to conclusion in as clinical a manner as possible. It’s for this reason that at times the more intimate and personal side of the film’s story involving the Emhoff family seemed like it was from a different film. The Emhoff’s end up becoming the heart of the film, but it’s this emotional center that never seemed to fit with the sterile and cold narrative style Soderbergh chose to tell the film’s story.

The performances by the star-studded cast was quite good, but no one person really stood out. If I had to choose one it would have to be Kate Winslet’s Dr. Mears who goes out into the field early in the crisis investigating the early stages of the epidemic. We see her frustration at having to deal with local governmental agencies who fear the hit a quarantine would put on local economies (as if people dying in droves wouldn’t be a bigger hit) and the very danger of contracting the disease itself since having no knowledge of how it works she must use means of protection that may or may not protect her. While her story-arc in the film was just one of several it was her’s which really showed a major impact at how impersonal can be and how no one is truly safe.

Contagion is a film that tells a story about the possibility of such an event occurring and does it well, if not in a very clinical way, but it also shows just how unprepared we truly are when it comes to the smallest of creatures who sees us as nothing more than living forms of intercontinental travel. It’s exploration of such a global crisis in all it’s aspects (medical, research, governmental, media and sociological) makes it seem more like a docudrama more at home in the Discovery Channel, The Science Channel and the like instead of a cinema multiplex. It’s all due to Soderbergh’s storytelling skills that he’s able to pull off such a non-traditional thriller and make people more afraid about their surroundings coming out of the film than they were going into it. It’s not one of Soderbergh’s best films, but it’s a strong offering from him and one of the better films to come out in 2011.