Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Review: "Honey Boy"

Maybe you, like me, have been scratching your head over the antics of Shia LaBeouf the past few years. The arrests, the publicity stunts-slash-performance art, the public drunkenness, the lawsuit alleging plagiarism, the questionable choices of roles. For the rare child actor who successfully transitioned to adult movie stardom, he seemed to be taking great pains to screw it all up.

I’d noticed he was doing more interesting work more recently with nicely layered performances in small indies like “American Honey” and “The Peanut Butter Falcon” -- in supporting parts, no less.

His comeback, if you want to call it that, reaches a higher plane with “Honey Boy,” which LaBeouf again stars in as a supporting role, but for which he also wrote the screenplay. With parallel storylines set in 1995 and 20005, it’s about a 12-year-old actor breaking into Hollywood on a kiddie TV show and then breaking down in alcoholism and arrests as young star on the verge of flaming out.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because this is indeed an autobiographical tale about LaBeouf’s own youth, particularly his troubled relationship with his father. The names and some details are switched around, but it’s indisputably LaBeouf casting a critical lens at his own life and mistakes.

Rather than feeling like another cloying act of narcissism -- like when LaBeouf attended one of his premieres wearing paper bag that said “I’m not famous anymore” -- “Honey Boy” has the flavor of an authentic self-exploration that’s also artistically vibrant and alive. It would make for an interesting story even if it were invented out of whole cloth.

In a daring act, LaBeouf -- even though he’s youthful-looking enough to play himself in the adult section -- casts himself as his father, here called James. This is not a “Mommie Dearest” sort of takedown of a parental figure, though the film does not try to obviate James’ failings as a parent, which range from emotional domineering to criminal neglect and occasional physical abuse.

Instead, it shows a willingness to embrace his father in all his fractured complexity. A war veteran and itinerant rodeo clown whose blackout drinking binges led to hard time in prison, James is now a lonely, somewhat pathetic figure whose “job” is to act as chaperone and acting coach to his son, who is a featured player on a Disney-esque TV show.

Despite the glamor of working on a studio lot every day, Otis (Noah Jupe) and James have anything but a hifalutin home life. They tool around on an old motorcycle to a dilapidated motel populated by people living on the trashier edge of Tinseltown.

James brusquely slaps away Otis’ attempts at holding hands or leaning a head on a shoulder while riding the motorcycle. With thinning long hair and owl-like glasses, LaBeouf as James resembles a hippie-turned-hardcase, who sprinkles his exhortations liberally with f-words and put-downs, like making disparaging comparisons about the size of their genitalia.

In the adult sequences, Lucas Hedges takes over the role of Otis. We first meet him dangling from some stunt ropes after a movie set filled with explosions in a very “Transformers” sort of way. He quickly gets drunk and crashes his car, leading to court-ordered rehab.

A solid supporting cast includes Laura San Giacomo as Otis’ therapist; Byron Bowers as his rehab roommate; and Martin Starr as one of the counselors. In the boyhood storyline FKA Twigs plays a shy older girl who lives in the motel room across the way. As James’ abuse reaches its zenith, Otis seeks out a mostly unspoken romance with her. Clifton Collins Jr. has a nice, small part as Otis’ ultra-cool Big Brother, Tom.

“Honey Boy” is directed by Alma Har’el, who’s made some notable documentaries (“Bombay Beach”) and makes her feature film debut here, as does LaBeouf as a screenwriter. It’s a fruitful partnership with a compelling narrative that sometimes wanders into and out of Otis’ dreams, or wishes.

People, including me, tend to mock millionaire showbiz types who seem incapable of dealing with lifestyles most of us would regard as a cakewalk. I don’t think LaBeouf made this movie to explain or justify his behavior, but simply to relate his own truth in an honest, empathetic way. This he does.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Video review: "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood"

More than anyone else working in Hollywood today, Quentin Tarantino makes movies strictly for himself. The audience’s reaction is a mere afterthought.

His latest, “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” falls about in the middle of his oeuvre. It's a big, sprawling, unfocused mess that nonetheless contains moments of Tarantino-esque intensity and entertainingly unhinged moods.

The story more or less centers on the duo Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a fading actor clutching to the last scraps of fame from a long-canceled cowboy TV show, and Pitt is Cliff Booth, a laconic stuntman who is his stunt double, driver and gofer.

Dalton is outwardly McQueen-esque bravado but is inwardly Woody Allen-ish neuroticism. Booth lives in a scrap-heap trailer and has just a dog for companionship. Their relationship is part boss/flunky, part drinking buddies, part nanny/child.

DiCaprio has the showier part, swinging through wild moods while being spectacularly unappreciative of a career that's superior to that 99.99% actors enjoy. But ultimately I felt drawn to Pitt's character, an aging cowboy tooling around in a Champion spark plug T and Hawaiian shirt slip-on, never seeming to worry about what tomorrow will bring.

The movie never really seems to focus on either character, trading back and forth on their solo movements while occasionally bringing them back together. I yearned for the latter sections and mostly suffered through the former.

The tie-in with the Manson murders seems concocted just to have something to bounce the boys off of, or give the piece a semblance of a narrative. Margot Robbie barely has any speaking lines as Sharon Tate, who lives in the house up the hill from Rick along with her husband, Roman Polanski. She is sometimes seen and barely heard.

Like "Inglorious Basterds," the historical record is used as a mere springboard for Tarantino’s fevered imagineering.

The writer/director/noted amateur podiatrist flies his foot fetish flag freely this go-round, with lots of close-ups of filthy hippie hooves. I wonder why at some point these big-name actors don't say, "Hey dude, sorry but I don't want to do this scene with some girl's feet in my face."

Hey, ya like tootsies, that's fine by me. I just find it distracting and icky to have a scene where half the screen is Margot Robbie's face reacting to stuff and the other half is her soles. And the fact that nearly every woman who appears in the movie has a scene like this.

There are certainly some entertaining parts to it, but my guess is the person who will most enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie is Tarantino himself.

Bonus features are rooted in additional scenes that pad another 20 minutes onto the film’s already ample run time, bringing it to a full three hours. There ae also five making-of documentary featurettes:
  • “Quentin Tarantino’s Love Letter to Hollywood”
  • “Bob Richardson – For the Love of Film”
  • “Shop Talk – The Cars of 1969”
  • “Restoring Hollywood – The Production Design of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”
  • “The Fashion of 1969”



Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Review: "Frozen 2"

It may not hold a candle to the original, but "Frozen 2" is a bright and energetic romp through familiar frozen tundras. It's also got some fairly dark and dramatic patches, so fair warning that wee ones may clamber into your lap halfway through the movie.

(Full feeling has almost returned to my thighs.)

Elsa, Anna, Olaf, Kristoff and all the rest are back for another magical tale that's, well, just not quite as magical. I was trying think about what made "Frozen" so transcendentally good, and what element is missing here.

Let's start with the music. Robin Lopez and Kristen Anderson Lopez again provide the songs, and sadly not one of them is as catchy or memorable as from the first movie. Certainly nothing as instantly recognizable and iconic as "Let It Go."

The moment you heard that, you knew the contest for the Best Song Oscar was over.

Probably the tune that comes closest to matching those thrills is "Into the Unknown," another high-soaring Broadway-style showstopper ballad sung by Idina Menzell, who does the voice of Queen Elsa. It's about her daring to risk the relative peace and calm her kingdom, Arendelle, has found in the six years that have passed -- in real time and in the film's universe -- in order to seek out the answers to nagging questions that haven't even been asked.

But more so than just the quality of the songs, it's the way they're used in the movie that feels like a downgrade.

Some films are musicals, and some are just movies interrupted by songs. "Frozen" was definitely in the first category, as each tune propelled the story forward and revealed the characters' traits and emotions. Think of Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) and Hans falling for each over the course of "Love Is An Open Door."

In the sequel, the songs feel like interruptions carefully timed every 10 minutes or so. They don't really add anything that we didn't already know. As soon as the dialogue starts to taper off, you know a musical cue is coming.

Perhaps the most egregious is the solo by Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), the unsophisticated woodsman who is Anna's gentleman love, in which he essentially announces that he's going to disappear from the movie for awhile. It's appropriately titled, "Lost in the Woods."

Conjured snowman/comic relief Olaf (Josh Gad) gets another bouncy upbeat tune, "When I Am Older," in which he shows some emerging maturity but also the enduring naivete that makes him so lovable.

He also continues to rearrange his parts humorously, which makes him wicked sharp at charades. The omnipresent snow flurry given to Olaf by Elsa is replaced by some vague "permafrost" spell, mostly I'm guessing to release the animators from having to keep a distracting cloud over his head for the whole movie.

The story is a fairly typical "a new threat emerges" plot. Elsa finds herself called by a mysterious voice from the far north, hinting at secrets about the death and first meeting of her parents -- not to mention the source of her magical abilities with ice.

Family legends say their grandfather, King Runeard (Jeremy Sisto), built a huge dam as a gift to the Northuldra, the native people who live there, but were betrayed and attacked. Since then the forest has been enshrouded in an impenetrable mist. The four elements -- earth, wind, fire and water -- seem to be punishing the humans for their transgressions.

I really liked the massive stone giants who tromp around the northland like mountains on the move, without even visible eyes or discernible facial features. Made me think of the Iron Giant, and anything that does is a good thing.

Sterling K. Brown provides the voice of Mattias, a loyal guard of Arrendelle, while Martha Plimpton is the Northuldra chief, Yelana. Alfred Molina takes over the voice of Elsa and Anna's father, and Evan Rachel Wood does the same for their mother.

Jennifer Lee wrote the screenplay and co-directed with Chris Buck, so the creative team is largely intact. Lack of continuity is often the biggest challenge in making a successful sequel, not to mention trying to rush it out too soon.

Neither mistake was made here. It's just really hard to catch lightning in a bottle twice.

Kids will probably treasure "Frozen 2" as much as they did the first one. Their parents will love that their children love it, while understanding that we should appreciate greatness for the very reason that it happens so rarely.

Review: "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood"

If you’re expecting a biopic of Fred Rogers, then “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is not it.

You will leave the theater not knowing much more about Rogers than you did going in, assuming you watched the iconic “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” show as a child, or even just saw the solid documentary about him from last year, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

No, this is more movie-making as therapy. Director Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster are aiming to summon Rogers’ spirit and spread his ethos, that each and every person is precious, across the globe.

Tom Hanks gives a superlative performance that makes a conscious choice not to do an impersonation of Rogers. Physically there’s not much resemblance, and Hanks eschews that reedy little country priest voice Rogers used to speak to generations of children over the decades his show was on PBS.

Rogers isn’t even the protagonist in his own movie, that role being delegated to Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), the journalist charged with profiling him circa 1998. It’s a fairly common trope for modern movies to include a storyteller character as a stand-in for the audience, asking the questions they’d like to ask and acting as an avatar for their emotional reactions.

But in this case, Lloyd isn’t just telling Rogers’ story; he’s the receptacle of his ministrations. This is a movie about a writer who had his life changed by the person he was writing about. If this film were a sentence, Lloyd is the subject and Rogers is the object.

Essentially, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is an extended cinematic group session. We are collectively blessed by Mr. Rogers to accept his wisdom, go forth and be neighborly.

This isn’t necessarily meant as criticism, though I suspect I didn’t love “Neighborhood” as much as most people will. This is the ultimate laughter-and-tears sort of filmmaking that tends to be very successful at the box office and during the awards season.

It’s just that this is the kind of movie that sets out to do a certain thing, and it does that thing very well, and people will leave it grateful for the thing they were expecting it to do. I felt fulfilled and utterly unsurprised.

Lloyd works at Esquire magazine as an investigative reporter. Professionally he’s riding high but has earned a reputation as a hard-to-get-along jerk; personally he is married and recently became a father late in life. Susan Kelechi Watson plays his wife, Andrea, who deeply loves Lloyd but also recognizes in him fault lines, a physical and emotional absence, that could threaten their nascent family’s stability.

Lloyd is assigned to write a 400-word piece on Rogers for the magazine’s issue on heroes, which is the sort of thing a newspaper reporter would be expected to crank out in half a day but here becomes a weeks-long odyssey with multiple trips to Pittsburgh to interview Rogers.

Rogers instantly treats him with kindness and familiarity, turning the conversation around to focus on the journalist rather than the interviewee. It seems most of Lloyd’s trauma involves Jerry (Chris Cooper), his father, though Lloyd stubbornly refuses to use this label. Jerry ran out on the family a long time ago and now seeks some kind of reconciliation.

The background is filled with many lovely bit parts. I especially liked Christine Lahti as Lloyd’s supportive-yet-demanding editor; Wendy Makkena as Dorothy, Jerry’s girlfriend who helped him put the pieces back together; and Enrico Colantoni as Bill, the right-hand man who’s always at Rogers’ side, part gofer and part watchdog.

I found interesting the film’s depiction of the production of Rogers’ show, which is like a carefully oiled machine of well-worn parts. The Pittsburgh crew is old-timers who love Fred while also being slightly exasperated by his ambling, schedule-be-damned ways. They know they’re not breaking any new ground but are focused on doing what they do as well as it can be done.

Much the same can be said of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”

I admit part of my reaction may be colored by the TV show itself, which ran from 1968 to 2001 (with a short, unremembered break in the ‘70s.) Though it’s now sacrilege to say such things, the truth is that, even as a small child who most needed to hear the message of self-love that Mr. Rogers spun so earnestly, I found his show terribly boring.

I know, I know…

A Generation X-er saying you didn’t like “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” is like being a Baby Boomer who found Woodstock to be just a concert, or the Beatles a great band but a trifle overrated. (Stage whisper: both are true.)

So you can hate me, and love this movie, but I will remain deeply in like with you both.

Review: "The Irishman"

Imagine a 3½-hour travelogue of Martin Scorsese’s gangster filmography. There isn’t really anything new, just riding over familiar themes he’s tread on in his other movies, over and over again. You appreciate the nostalgia tour, but in the end that’s all it is.

That’s “The Irishman.”

Heck, I thought the whole goombah thing was played out back in the days of “Casino.” But here we are a quarter century on, reuniting Robert De Niro with Joe Pesci, who was lured out of virtual retirement, and throwing Al Pacino into the mix.

Although their films share a lot of DNA, Pacino has never been in a Scorsese movie before. All four men are in their 70s now, and “The Irishman” very much as the feeling of ‘one last ride with the old gang, while they still can.’

It’s the story of Frank Sheeran, known by that titular nickname for being the only non-Italian high up in the Bufalino crime family centered around Philadelphia. Frank, played by De Niro, was a war hero who became a Teamsters truck driver and later a local chapter president with the backing of Russell Bufalino (Pesci), the mob boss who had pull in most everything, including the union.

The story, written by Steven Zallian (“Schindler’s List”) based on a book by Charles Brandt, follows Frank from the 1950s to the 1970s, with flashbacks to his World War II days and a framing story when he is an elderly man in a nursing home recalling his life -- seemingly to nobody.

There’s also a framing device within the larger one, in which Frank travels with Russ and their wives on a languid road trip to Detroit in 1975, ostensibly to attend a wedding but really to do a little business along the way, including hashing things out with a troublesome ally, former Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino).

If you know anything about how or when Hoffa died, it’s not too hard to put together the real import of their trip. The subject of Brandt’s book is also well-known, but for those who aren’t familiar I’ll refrain from revealing any spoilers, even if they are glaringly obvious.

The film uses CGI to “de-age” the actors during the earlier sequences, and for the most part it’s effective enough that you don’t notice it after a while. Russ refers to Franks as “the kid” during the 1950s scenes, though even with digital help De Niro looks more like he’s in his 50s than his 30s. Only the World War II stuff looks cringingly fake.

Frank is a very passive guy for a main character; he’s mostly reacting to other people. Pacino gets the limelight as the charismatic, neurotic Hoffa, constantly blustering and schmoozing. Pesci plays the calm guy, quiet guy you have to watch out for.

Essentially, the three legendary actors switched around their stereotypical roles.

There’s some wonderfully rough dialogue, including aphorisms substituted for dark deeds. For instance, Frank first gains his reputation as an assassin, which is known as “painting houses.” (A home’s wall splattered with blood provides the visual cue.) A final judgment on a guy becomes, “It’s what it is.”

But spread out over 209 minutes, when you put it all together the result is a lot of run-on scenes of guys riding around in cars, sitting in bars, having tangential conversations.

"We gotta talk about that thing. I'm a little concerned."
"What thing, that thing?"
"No, the other thing, the one with Tony."
"Big Tony?"
"No, the other Tony."
"Little Tony?"
"No, the other other Tony."
"Oh, so we gotta go paint his house."
"No. Not that."

There’s lots of other characters who flit in and out of the story, too many to name them all. A short list would include Harvey Keitel and Bobby Cannavale as big guys in Russ’ orbit; Sebastian Maniscalco as Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo, an upstart who likes clam sauce; Ray Romano as the obligatory mob lawyer; and Stephen Graham as Anthony Provenzano, aka “Tony Pro,” aka “the little guy,” who clashes repeatedly with Hoffa.

The female characters are used more poorly than any other mainstream film of recent vintage I can recall. They’re literally mannequins in the background, seen but rarely heard. Certainly they do not say or do anything pivotal. They do not even age like the men do, though who knows if that’s an aesthetic choice by Scorsese or simply a cutback on the film’s famously sprawling budget.

Scorsese casts Anna Paquin as Frank’s daughter, Peggy, and then gives her nothing to do. She stands witness to Frank’s crimes, but is not gifted with the ability to speak about them. We wait for the final confrontation that never arrives. What a waste of a fine actress.

“The Irishman” isn’t a bad movie -- it’s great-looking and Pacino gives a peppy performance as Hoffa. But it’s an overlong elegy for a time gone by, when mobsters were important figures and people made movies glamorizing them. Expiration dates for both are overdue.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Review: "Bartleby" (1970)

Herman Melville wrote "Bartleby, The Scrivener" and published it in a magazine anonymously while he was slaving away on his masterwork, "Moby Dick." The story of a lowly office clerk who (politely) refuses to do his work, many observers saw it as Melville's way of hashing out his writing demons. It is largely regarded as his greatest short story.

By the time he died, Melville's nascent fame had faded and he could no longer make a living at writing, so he was forced to take a job as a clerk at a customs and duties office. He died in the same virtual anonymity in which he first published "Bartleby," and he and his character's fates are disturbingly mirrored.

There have been a few adaptations of "Bartleby" as a radio play, stage play, an opera, and several films, including a comedic version in 2001 starring Crispin Glover and David Paymer, unseen by me (or most anyone). And the passively rebellious nature of Bartleby has been borrowed in numerous ways by writers and filmmakers, such as Ben Affleck's stubborn fallen angel in "Dogma" carrying the name.

I had never heard of the 1970 film version, and it's apparently dropped whatever status it once had in the public consciousness. It's a short movie, just 78 minutes, written by Anthony Friedman and Rodney Carr-Smith, with Friedman also directing and Carr-Smith producing.

It was the only film Friedman ever made, and Carr-Smith only made one other. The film is low budget, filmed in just a few locations along with some verisimilitudinous scenes shot in the everyday hustle and bustle of London.

Bartleby is very much in the mode of Chauncey Gardiner or Charly Gordon, seemingly simpleton characters whose naive innocence contrasts with the dark and oppressive world that they inhabit. In movies like this the story is not about Bartleby so much as using him as a tool to explore ourselves.

The lesson we're supposed to take away is not that Bartleby is an oddball, but that we're oddballs for not thinking more like him.

John McEnery is an interesting physical specimen for the part: young, tall and thin, with receding blondish hair swept severely over the top of his head. He only ever wears one suit, seems to come from nowhere, and apparently spends all his time not at work wandering around London, peering into storefront windows or other things that interest him.

Bartleby barely ever speaks, and rarely unless spoken to. His default mode is with his head hunched over and his eyes downcast, as if he is trying to disappear into the flooring.

Friedman shoots a lot of modernist architecture around Bartleby, showing him trudging up stairs or along streetscapes with antiseptic-looking buildings in the background. The very advancements that have made us so proud of ourselves -- phones, computers, transportation -- are baffling to him.

He applies for a job at a small accounting firm as an audit clerk. (Or "clark" as it's pronounced in the Brit idiom.) It's a tedious job -- checking row after endless row of numbers to make sure the accounts all add up. Bartleby previously worked at the post office, first in the "dead letter" (undeliverable) department, then later as a clerk.

The boss -- never named, nor is the business -- is played by Paul Scofield as an upper-crust type who favors pipes and three-piece tweed suits. He hires Bartleby, astonished that the young man makes no specific demands in pay. "The salary is not important. Anything reasonable will be sufficient."

Bartleby takes the ad-hoc work station in the little nook outside the boss' office and at first is very proficient in his work. But one day when asked to work on the Prebble account, he utters the words that soon become his mantra: "I'd prefer... not to."

He says this in a halting way, very politely, often with the preamble of "At the moment," as if this is a temporary situation that will change.

At first the boss is nonplussed, and assigns the work to other employees. But soon Bartleby's refusals come more frequently and more broadly: "I'd prefer not to do accounts anymore today."

Things go from there. The boss, who has a kindly heart, finds himself unable to simply fire the young man. A colleague that he lunches with weekly (Thorley Walters) urges him to do so, ultimately suggesting his weak nerve will impact his reputation as a businessman.

The boss seems to think that if he acts in a reasonable way, Bartleby will be reasonable in return. But things grow worse, and soon it causes strife with the other workers who have to take up the slack.

It reaches a head when the boss goes into the office on a Sunday -- cued by the ringing church bells -- and discovers that Bartleby is living there. He follows Bartleby on his excursions and confronts him, demanding to know why he refuses his simple demands for work.

Bartleby says that anything he would say would provide no satisfying answer, and hints cryptically that he explained himself on his job application. The story never returns to explore this.

The boss finally fires Bartleby, but he prefers not to vacate the offices. Ultimately the boss moves the business to another location, thinking he has washed his hands of the troublesome fellow. But the old landlord summons him back, complaining about the abandoned puppy of a man.

The boss tries one last time to reason with him, even offering to drive him to his own personal doctor. (In Melville's story and most adaptations, the boss actually surprises himself by inviting Bartleby to live with him, though not in this version.)

Bartleby is taken away by the police and placed in an asylum. The boss goes to see him a few times, the only visitor Bartleby has, and is confronted by a strange, painfully thin woman who seems to know them both. Bartleby deteriorates, preferring not to eat, and eventually dies.

I found it interesting that the boss' chief reaction to Bartleby's refusals and strange ways is not anger, but embarrassment. When the police arrive to pluck Bartleby out of the old office, the boss runs away, as if simply being near the scene will discredit him. Similarly, in the final scene he walks briskly away from Bartleby's slumped body, pausing long enough to inform a pair of nurses before scurrying away.

I found myself strangely moved and engaged by "Bartleby." It's a short, slow-moving picture without a whole lot of narrative. The characters are never explored in a traditional kind of storytelling way -- for example, we never learn anything about the boss' life away from work.

And yet, it's an odd and emotional tone poem of a movie. Bartleby is different from anyone else, and though passive by nature he's not afraid to be different. In one of his few monologues, he notes that most people are afraid to talk to themselves, though he is not.

Bartleby's little rebellions do not seem to have any purpose behind them, other than for their own sake. He chooses to take the left-hand turn while everyone else goes right. He does it perhaps because he simply wants to see what everyone else is missing.

"Bartleby" is a quiet, stubborn little gem.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Review: "The Report"

Near the beginning of "The Report," one character remarks that it's going to be very difficult to tell their story in a way people can understand. This is very much the filmmakers speaking through them to the audience, essentially warning us in advance about the complicated tale they're about to spin.

The good news is they tell this story about as well as it can be told. I'm reminded of "The Big Short," which managed to weave a complex tale with lots of moving parts into a coherent, impactful narrative.

The bad news is I fear too many people don't want to hear about the "enhanced interrogation techniques," or EITs, employed by the U.S. government in the years after the 9/11 attacks, or the (largely successful) attempts to sweep them under the rug. It's old news.

The report the title refers to was one issued by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2014 after more than five years of careful and methodical investigation by a small team of congressional staffers. It essentially laid out its finding that the CIA abused detainees using quasi-scientific methods that were justified with out-there legal theories.

Of course, the powers that be took great pains to water down this investigation, first by refusing to allow any witnesses to be interviewed. Later they went so far as to break into the investigators' supposedly secure office in a CIA building in a move that was about two lawyerly briefs away from the Watergate plumbers.

Adam Driver shines as the hero of the story, Daniel Jones, and for once it's about a real guy and not some made-up Hollywood "amalgam" of people, like they usually do with movies like "Zero Dark Thirty." Jones actually has a scene where he sees an ad for that movie while he's working furiously to get the findings of his report published, and just about snorts.

"The Report" is basically an investigative whodunit in the mold of "All the President's Men," with distinct phases. It frames the ongoing work of the investigators between 2009 and 2014 with flashbacks to the actual events at the "black sites" operated by the CIA in 2002 and thereafter. The recreation of the EITs (many people call them torture) are truly stomach-churning.

In the first half, the main bad guys are a pair of quack-ish psychologists who first pushed the notion of EITs, which were based on actual rigorous training American military personnel undergo to prepare them for the possibility of being captured. This includes nasty techniques like stress positions, sleep deprivation, humiliation through slapping or forced nudity, and the now-infamous act of waterboarding, which simulates the feeling of drowning.

Played by Douglas Hodge and T. Ryder Smith, the psychologists are portrayed as cowboy amateurs, overruling experienced FBI interrogators who know how to build rapport with a subject. Instead they construct their own waterboarding table based on one they saw in a video.

Watching these detainees, evil men though they were, being so foully mistreated is gripping stuff and propels the first act of the film.

The middle section wanders a bit, as we get further away from the torture in both time and narrative, and the movie turns from the story of an investigation to the attempts to have the report made public. At one point the CIA starts investigating the people investigating them. (Yes, it really happened.)

There are surreptitious meetings with a New York Times reporter, classified documents being smuggled out of buildings, and other familiar clandestine stuff.

Annette Bening gives a strong turn as Sen. Diane Feinstein, the chair of the intelligence committee and Jones' boss. She is portrayed as diligent, un-partisan and persevering while recognizing the limitations of playing by the rules of Washington D.C., where bureaucratic processes take months, or years.

She often has to rein Jones in or yank his leash. It's interesting how their character arcs diverge. At the start, he is methodical and calm while she rages about uncovering the truth, and by the end their roles have reversed. He's hollering about the injustice of it all and she has to coldly read the facts and make the hard calls.

Aside from these two figures, this is a movie where just about everybody comes off looking bad. It is thoroughly bipartisan in its contempt -- first for the Bush administration that set EITs in motion, and later for an Obama White House that was so determined not to dwell on the past that it ended up being complicit in the cover-up.

Obama CIA director John Brennan (Ted Levine, who can scowl with the best of them), a man much in the news these days for other reasons, comes across as the main heavy in the second half of the movie as the spooks push back and try to deep-six the report.

Scott Z. Burns, a veteran screenwriter, wrote the script and directs his first feature film. It's a strong showing, taking all these different pieces and assembling them into a final puzzle. The excellent supporting cast includes Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, Corey Stoll, John Rothman, Scott Shepherd and Tim Blake Nelson.

Burns frequently adorns the background with honeycomb patterns or other repeating geometric shapes, like the CIA building where Jones departs from late every evening. It gives us the sense of being trapped in a beehive pervaded by a loud, droning buzz of groupthink.

Whatever your thoughts on the efficacy of enhanced interrogation, it's disturbing to think how our government undertakes execrable practices and then spend years trying to hide that fact from the public. "The Report" is a complex but worthy deep-dive into the abyss we'd rather not gaze at too long.

Review: "Ford v Ferrari"

If you’re a serious car person you know the story of Carroll Shelby and Le Mans. If you’re not, you’ve probably never heard of it.

Within the fairly niche-y segment of non-NASCAR auto racing, it’s considered one of the greatest legends in sports history. For car enthusiasts, Shelby’s name is spoken with hushed reverence. Most others ask who she is.

Short version: Shelby, a retired racer and struggling sports car designer, was tabbed by Ford Motor Company to take on Ferrari in the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans race in the mid-1960s. The Italians were the storied Goliaths, having won seven of the last eight races, while Ford and the Americans were upstart Davids elbowing into a European racing culture that looked down their nose at them.

(No hints who came out on top.)

“Ford v Ferrari” is the absolutely terrific film chronicling that monumental endeavor. Aside from just being one of the best movies of the year, it triumphs on two distinct levels.

For initiates it’s a chance to bask in an engrossing story about figures who are new to them – sort of like “Rudy” or “Hoosiers.” For us gearheads, it’s a chance to discover a new aspect of the tale: the strange and strong bond between Shelby and his lead driver, Englishman Ken Miles.

Matt Damon and Christian Bale play Shelby and Miles, respectively, and it’s this pairing that really makes the movie find its highest gear. Like the criminally overlooked racing drama from a few years races themselves.

Damon’s Shelby is a plain-spoken, cowboy hat-wearing achiever who runs his own shop after heart troubles forces his retirement from racing after winning the 1959 Le Mans. He’s recruited by Ford to take on Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) and his racing team after Ford's offer to buy out the Italian company is rudely rejected.

As Miles, Bale has a sort of hunched-over, puckish charm. He’s got top-tier skills as a driver, but his independent attitude have led him to the bottom of the racing pile. No team will sponsor him, he barely ekes out a living running a one-man mechanic shop, though he still scores some wins in heaps he puts together from spare parts.

Shelby recognizes a kinship between them, though Miles is slower to commit. They are not so much attracted to speed as compelled by the need for it. Shelby is willing to negotiate the compromises and politics of working for a huge company, but Miles is the stubborn purist.

The only thing Miles craves is to drive the perfect lap with no mistakes – and then, another.

Ford Motor Company… does not come off looking great here. They’re depicted as a huge, uncaring monolith run by Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), a magisterial egotist who’s willing to dump $9 million into developing a groundbreaking car, the GT40, just to show up Ferrari.

Jon Bernthal plays Lee Iacocca, the enterprising marketing guy at Ford who suggests tackling Le Mans and puts the pieces into motion. Josh Lucas is the heavy as Leo Beebe, the weasely #2 man at Ford who loathes Miles and continually works to undermine him – even if it means detonating their chances at the race.

Other members of the great supporting cast include Caitriona Balfe as Miles’ wife, Mollie, who stares at things straight on with wide open eyes and demands the truth; Noah Jupe as their son, Peter, who bears witness to the storytelling; and Ray McKinnon as the sage old mechanic who rejects computer testing of cars in favor of yarn and masking tape.

Indianapolis native Jason Keller wrote the original screenplay, which batted around Hollywood for a while and once had Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt attached. Brother screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth added a polish.

Director James Mangold (“Wolverine”) and his technical crew do a fabulous job with the racing scenes, from the staggering crashes to the screeching soundscape. Unlike American style races where drivers turn left for a few hours, Le Mans is an eight-mile endurance test on real roads that spans from day to night and back again, with drivers swapping out every few hours.

I adored the way Miles keeps up an ongoing dialogue between himself and the car, a sort of pace-setting patter prior to the days of radio communication between racer and pit crew. With his British lilt and colorful language, we get lovingly off-kilter dialogue, like the car “still feels like a bag of squirrels.”

I’ve complained a lot about overlong films of late, but “Ford v Ferrari” earns every second of its 152 minutes. This is one of those rare movies with an epic scale but a very intimate feel. It should chase some trophies.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Video review: "The Angry Birds Movie 2"

I’m not sure if we needed a second Angry Birds movie. Heck, I’m not sure if the first one was really necessary. But it made a lot of money, so here’s a second helping.

If you’ll recall from the based-on-a-video game setup: a diverse array of flightless birds live happily on an island. They are constantly beset by their enemies, the bright green pigs from across the waters who want their eggs.

Red, the hot-headed outcast voiced by Jason Sudeikis, managed to devise a way to beat the porcine interlopers, led by King Leonard (Bill Hader), and earn a little status among his peers, too.

Now they find a common enemy in Zeta (Leslie Jones), who leads a secretive third island inhabited by eagles. It’s a frozen wasteland, and she wants to take over the other two islands to improve her chilly digs.

Also returning are zippy speed bird Chuck (Josh Gad); Danny McBride as the amiable but volatile Bomb; Peter Dinklage as Mighty Eagle, the past-his-prime hero of Bird Island; and Silver, a more conscientious bird (Rachel Bloom).

“The Angry Birds 2” is low-ambition animated fodder for kiddies. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’m all in favor of families having wholesome stuff on Blu-ray/DVD when you just need the kids to settle down for a while.

I just wish people could try a little harder than this.

Bonus features are quite healthy, and include a new short film, “Live Stream,” as well as six mini-movies starring the Hatchlings -- a crew of cutesy young birds who get into scrapes during the movie.

There’s also a travelogue of the real birds who inspired the animators; Thanksgiving featurette; a Christmas-themed singalong; a making-of documentary short, and more. There are also three DYI family features on how to make your own pig snot, volcano and popcorn balls.



Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Review: "Midway"

What a good old-fashioned rip-roarer war picture. “Midway” is the sort of movie they made 40 to 60 years ago starring John Wayne or Henry Fonda and a bunch of other guys, but with modern CGI effects for the extravaganza air-and-sea battles.

I went in skeptical that famously schmaltzy conductor of disaster flicks, director Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day”), would deliver anything more than another soulless special effects showcase. But paired with screenwriter Wes Tooke, a rookie to feature film scripts, and a solid cast of square-jawed actors of varying fame, I left amazed and more than a little shook.

The aerial combat scenes are just flabbergastingly good. The pilots careen and yaw all over the screen, a concerto of impacts and explosions sounding all around them. There are plenty of dogfights with Japanese Zeroes, with cutaways to how it all looks from the ground.

Best of all are the bombing runs, as the Americans tip tail over nose and dive seemingly straight down vertically, the Japanese aircraft carriers blasting a storm cloud of flak into their faces, pulling up at only the very last moment. Their wingtips kiss the ocean surface before climbing again.

It’s like taking a ride on the world’s longest, deepest roller coaster ridden by yowling demons bound straight for the fiery furnaces of hell.

The story actually sets up the war in the Pacific beginning at Pearl Harbor and all through the important military developments before Midway, including the battle at Marshall Islands and the James Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) raid on Tokyo. The last hour or so of the movie is the titular battle, which is generally regarded as the turning point of the war.

Like a lot of old-school war flicks, the action flips back and forth between the pilots and ship captains on the front lines with the commanders and intelligence boys back at HQ, and does a good job of seeing how one group played off the other.

Patrick Wilson is Edwin Layton, a dweeby intelligence officer who predicted the attack on Pearl, and now has to pluck up the courage to convince the top brass to rely on the info from his team, which includes military band members turned into codebreakers. Woody Harrelson (!) plays Admiral Chester Nimitz, put in charge of the Pacific effort while most of the fleet was sunken or smoking.

Ed Skrein is terrific as Dick Best, the prototypical hotshot cowboy pilot who flies like he doesn’t care about coming back. Then he’s placed in command and has to become the shepherd to a flock of green newbies. He’s got a sort of hunched-over, laconic rascal charm. Think Han Solo by way of Jersey.

Luke Evans is Wade McClusky, the by-the-book commander who clashes with Best, and Luke Kleintank is Best’s buddy, Clarence Dickinson, another crackerjack pilot. Dennis Quaid plays Vice Admiral William Halsey, Mandy Moore is Best’s wife, Anne, and Nick Jonas plays a puckish machinist who gets into the action.

Surprisingly, nearly all of the characters are actual historical figures. The Japanese commanders are even given plenty of scenes so we can size up the strategy from their side. Though this isn’t an “equal sides” type of film production along the lines of “Tora! Tora! Tora!”.

There's even a little ode to filmmaker John Ford, who happened to be on hand at Midway the day of attack, producing some seminal documentary footage.

The film’s a bit long at 138 minutes -- so many are these days, it seems. I long for a time when editors were powers in Hollywood and had agency to tighten, tighten, tighten. Today’s movies are like Robert De Niro’s out-of-shape scenes in “Raging Bull.” They still can pack a punch, but the flab is distracting.

Still, a few talkie scenes that run long and some clanky dialogue aside, “Midway” is a terrific piece of throwback entertainment that actually gets the history right.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Alfie" (1966)

"Alfie" is the story of a charming letch who woos and uses a string of women in 1960s London. It was a hit Broadway play, but when they went to make it into a movie stage star Terrence Stamp didn't want to have anything to do with it, nor did virtually every other Brit actor of the day.

With frank depictions of casual sex -- including married women -- emotional abuse and a harrowing abortion sequence, the material was considered too controversial for mainstream movies. Richard Harris and bunch of other actors passed.

Finally, a virtual unknown named Michael Caine -- who was actually Stamp's roommate -- agreed to play it, despite warnings against it being a potential career-killer.

We know the rest.

Despite containing one of the most iconic characters of 20th century cinema -- not to mention the instantly recognizable hit Burt Bacharach song sung by Cher that plays over the credits -- somehow I had managed to miss "Alfie" up until now. It did not disappoint.

Like Spencer Tracy, Caine is one of those actors I just naturally associate with middle age, and now senior years. He seemed old early, and for a long time. Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren -- their personas are indelibly marked with a strain of maturity. But they were indeed youngsters once.

So it's a bit of a shock at first to see this young, skinny, blond(ish) scamp bedding women and making a scene.

Director Lewis Gilbert and screenwriter Bill Naughton kept the feature of Naughton's play in which Alfie Elkins speaks directly to the audience. I'm trying to think of an earlier popular movie in which an actor looked directly into the camera and spoke right in the middle of a scene, and am drawing a blank.

Speaking sotto voce was long a staple of the stage, but I imagine it was quite a thing in 1966 for the protagonist to be speaking to another character, turn and comment to the audience about the interaction that is taking place, and then return to it.

Especially since these scenes usually occur with women, and he's incredibly insulting or dismissive of them. Of course, within the conceit of the device, they sort of go into a trance and don't hear themselves being denigrated.

Alfie refers to his girls as "birds" or, when his stripes are showing, as "it." They remade "Alfie" in 2004 with Jude Law, though I've never seen it. I'd be curious how the sexual dynamics of both films played at the time, and how they register now in the #MeToo movement.

Not well for the latter, I'd imagine, though I pretty well loathe the recent of fad of judging cultural artifacts by today's standards and mores rather than the context in which they were born. That way lies madness.

The notable thing about Alfie is that he never forces a woman to do anything. Indeed, he seems exceedingly accommodating and even deferential. He repeatedly stresses to his women that they are free to make their own choices, and if they choose to spend time with them he's pleased to have them.

What's really going on, though, is that Alfie has constructed a fictional alternate world for himself in which everything is consequence-free and the women he sleeps with are well aware that he's a wolf, always roving. So he's deluding himself into believing he's doing no one any harm, while his manipulations leave a wake of broken souls behind him.

For example, as the story opens Alfie is carrying on with a married woman, Siddie (Millicent Martin), including a hook-up in his car next to the metro station. He is a high-end on-call chauffer, which means he is often on the move with a Rolls Royce or other expensive vehicle, and plenty of downtime in between jobs.

But Alfie is also living with Gilda (Julia Foster), a rather dour young thing he refers to as "a stand-by girl." The great thing about a stand-by girl, he says, is that she knows she's a stand-by. Of course, it doesn't take long after meeting Gilda to realize that she doesn't see herself that way.

Gilda becomes pregnant and, despite promising to give the baby up for adoption, bears a son, Malcolm, that they both quickly become attached to. However, given Alfie's refusal to marry and settle down, she eventually leaves him for Humphrey (Graham Stark), a drab but decent bus conductor with whom she'd previously broken up.

One of the film's most poignant moments comes at the end when Alfie spots the family at a christening of their new baby girl, Humphrey joyfully tossing Malcolm into the air and referring to himself as his daddy.

Alfie has three other notable dalliances in the course of the story. The most heartbreaking is with Lily (Vivien Merchant), a rather frumpy middle-aged wife of his roommate at the convalescent home he is sent to when doctors find a shadow on his lung. Harry (Alfie Bass) and he become friends, despite the older man detesting Alfie's "filthy" love life. After being released Alfie has a one-night stand with Vivien, who confesses that she never been with another man besides her husband.

She becomes pregnant, leading to a truly excruciating sequence where they hire an abortionist (Denholm Elliott), who manages to shame the couple before performing an inducement in Alfie's disgusting kitchen. Alfie sees the aborted fetus and has a near-mental breakdown.

On the flip side is a fun affair with Shelley Winters playing Ruby, an older, self-confident American woman. She is rich and has similar attitudes about sex, so when things are looking down for Alfie he decides he should settle down with her and become her trophy husband. This leads to another painful scene, where he finds her in bed with another man.

What's he got that I don't, Alfie demands. "He's younger than you," Ruby coldly responds. The wolf meets an even bigger, more menacing wolf.

Finally there is the rather pathetic affair with Annie (Jane Asher), a red-headed hitchhiker that Alfie essentially steals from another professional driver, a truck driver named Frank (Sydney Tafler) who had initially picked up her up.

They're only together for a few weeks, but all Annie does is hang around Alfie's flat, cleaning and cooking all day. Part of him quite enjoys having such a servile bird around. But when a pair of his mates kid him about putting on weight from her hearty cooking -- "blown out" and "poncified" -- he abruptly breaks things off.

I quote enjoyed that wording and other British slang of the day. Alfie also uses the word "mumsie" to refer to a sort of comfortable, maternal feeling that some women put off. At varying times he is attracted or repelled by this quality.

"Alfie" has aged well, I think, because though it's very much a product of its time it explores an eternal subject: the competing impulses of young men to seek gratification for its own sake or embracing an existence that's less exciting but ultimately holds greater rewards.

"What's it all about?" Alfie famously asks in the final scene. I think he knows. I's just a question of when, or if, he'll get there.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Video review: "Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw"

I didn’t know that a movie franchise could “present” a spinoff, but I’m not sure if anybody would buy a ticket to “Hobbs & Shaw” if they didn’t know it was part of the “Fast & Furious” universe. But it made its pile of money, helped by the branding as well as the star power of Dwayne Johnson and, to a much lesser extent, Jason Statham.

They played late-addition fringe characters next to Vin Diesel and his company of street racers, and here get their own 2-plus-hour movie to smack people around and toss strangle-throated one-liners and occasionally drive cars.

I pretty well loathed “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw,” because it’s a totally uninteresting garbage movie. The silliness of the title, complete with dueling ampersands, only adds to the reasons to mock it.

Personally I would’ve called the movie “Bald Guys Grunt and Kick People” and be done with it.

Johnson is Hobbs, a U.S. government badass who gets loaned out for all sorts of tough jobs. Statham is Shaw, a criminal turned British MI6 agent who appreciates the finer things in life. They’re thrown together to track down Snowflake, a viral weapon with the potential to kill everyone on Earth.

Idris Elba plays the villain, Brixton Lore, who’s been cybernetically augmented so he’s more than a match for Hobbs and Shaw in hand-to-hand combat, even together. Vanessa Kirby plays Shaw’s sister, a capable agent in her own right who gets in between the two alpha dudes.

There’s a car-chasing-a-helicopter scene that’s not too bad, and later on the gang travels to Hobbs’ homeland of Samoa so they can have an old-school beat-down against the bad guys using medieval weapons and traps.

This is an egregiously dumb, ugly movie. I’m torn between laughing at it and hating it.

Bonus features are in inverse proportion to the quality of the film. There’s a feature-length commentary track with director David Leitch; extended and deleted scenes; an alternate opening; and a baker’s dozen of documentary shorts focusing on various aspects of production, from the star duo pairing to the stunt coordination.

Movie: D-
Extras: B+