‘The Report’ Details the Long Slog Towards Exposing Torture


CREDIT: Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Studios

Starring: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Morrison, Tim Blake Nelson, Ben McKenzie, Jake Silberman, Matthew Rhys, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, Dominic Fumusa, Corey Stoll

Director: Scott Z. Burns

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: R for Depictions of Torture

Release Date: November 15, 2019 (Limited)

There’s a moment in The Report that might be what most viewers remember it for, in which the 2012 hunt-for-Osama bin Laden thriller Zero Dark Thirty is called out and basically scoffed at for implying that torture led to valuable intel in the war on terrorism. Despite this apparent antagonism, The Report and Zero Dark Thirty work well as companion pieces, offering somewhat parallel stories in the defining geopolitical conflict of the twenty-first century. I believe that the message of Zero Dark regarding the efficacy of torture is more complicated than any binary interpretation, and I actually think that the people behind The Report would agree, at least in terms of the existence of complications in the world. When a narrative is about a real-life group of people poring over thousands of government documents for months on end, you tend to find that the answers aren’t always quite so straightforward. But two things remain clear: torture is bad, and the people deserve to know that it happened.

The primary document sifter is Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), who was working as a Senate staffer for California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) while he investigated the CIA’s systematic use of torture in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The job is thuddingly labor-intensive, but Daniel is fully devoted to the task, and besides, the real challenge for him is getting this information out to the public over the protests of the forces who would prefer it be as redacted as possible or just completely hidden. The Report serves the entertainment value of presenting someone doing his job supremely competently, but it is also a bit of a slog. It is not exactly fun to spend so much time in windowless basements with Daniel, and his co-workers let him know that it’s not so great for him either. But for the good of mankind, this information needed to get out one way or the other. And if this story needed to be jazzed up into a big-screen adventure for people to become more aware of this miscarriage of decency, then The Report ought to be considered a succcess at least on that score.

The Report is Recommended If You Like: The truth being made public

Grade: 3000 of 5000 Documents

Movie Review: ‘Captain Marvel’ is a Blast of Low-Key Wonder

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CREDIT: Marvel Studios

Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Clark Gregg

Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Running Time: 124 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence That Tends to Cause Nosebleeds

Release Date: March 8, 2019

It’s been a while since I have felt consistently sustained excitement for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m a fan of superheroes, and Marvel in particular, but I’m a bigger film buff, and I often find myself in a weird liminal space where I want to have more unbridled emotions for these movies, but it is hard to feel that way about a series sticking to a formula that is so much about ticking off obligatory long-term checkpoints. Captain Marvel does not burst free of that formula, but it has enough of its own magic to make it the first MCU movie in quite some time in which I left the theater wanting to re-watch it. It could have just been the way it happened to hit me on one particular day, but I think it has also something to do with its vibe of ignoring all the noise and getting on with it mission.

The plot is a little too complicated to easily synopsize, which Disney and Marvel are surely happy about, as they do not want us spoiling any of their MCU flicks, particularly this one, as it is uniquely dependent on backstory reveals and memory retrieval. Suffice it to say then that Vers (Brie Larson) is an intergalactic warrior fighting for the race known as the Kree, but she is also plagued by visions of a past life as U.S. Air Force fighter pilot Carol Danvers. The Kree are stuck in a long-term struggle against the shapeshifting Skrulls, which leads Vers to Earth in 1995 in a race for a powerful energy source. This is a typical McGuffin-focused Marvel film, but this particular McGuffin is unusually resonant, touching on themes of refugees and the perils of deep psychological deception.

Captain Marvel is also your standard MCU movie insofar as it builds to a climax with an unengaging, undistinguished action set piece. But luckily, that is not the main attraction. Vers teams up with a pre-eye patch Nick Fury, resulting in a buddy flick that serves as Samuel L. Jackson’s biggest showcase thus far in this franchise. His and Larson’s dynamic is one of instant respect that still leaves plenty of room for clowning around as they save the universe. That feeling is matched by a strong sense overall of the film being aesthetically tuned in. I cannot think of any other superhero movie that features a steady stream of crickets chirping amidst characters talking outside.

Captain Marvel is not massively revolutionary. While it may be the first MCU movie fronted by a female hero, it is not about femininity the way that Black Panther is about blackness. But while it does not respond hard to the big questions, it gets so many of the little things right.

Captain Marvel is Recommended If You Like: Top Gun, Nineties Rock, Friendly and Intelligent Aliens Who Speak English or At Least Have Universal Translators

Grade: 4 out of 5 Supreme Intelligences

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Life Itself’ Has a Few Too Many Twists and Way Too Many Tragedies

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CREDIT: Jose Haro/Amazon Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Oscar Issac, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Laia Costa, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Alex Monner, Jean Smart, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Lorenza Izzo, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Dan Fogelman

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: R for Violent Accidents and Millennial Hipster Profanity

Release Date: September 21, 2018

Thanks to Crazy, Stupid, Love. (which he scripted) and This Is Us (which he created), Life Itself writer/director Dan Fogelman is now as synonymous with the game-changing twist as M. Night Shyamalan. He’s due for a backlash, and Life Itself is the perfect specimen to engender that anger. The film itself is not so much about the twist itself so much as it is about the entire concept of twists. Fogelman withholds essential information that prevents us from knowing until he wants us to know how various generations of people are related by coincidence or even closer connections. But he constantly shows his hand, or at least part of his hand, to let us know that a reveal is coming. In fact, this is all kind of a deconstruction about how we tell stories and save twists for maximum impact. I actually believe that such a theory-heavy idea could work, but the product we have here is filled with characters and events that are just exhausting.

The action is split by time and the Atlantic Ocean. In New York City, we’ve got Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde), a mostly happy couple who might have some insidious relationship issues lurking. Meanwhile, over in Spain, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) works the field and romances the waitress Isabel (Laia Costa). Along the way, we meet some of their parents, children, and employers. We immediately know how some of them are connected, while we then watch the other puzzle pieces come together in non-linear fashion to discover the rest of the connections. There could be a satisfying thrill to how the final twist weaves everyone together, but instead it is just exhausting, as all the misfortunes that these characters endure and the bad decisions that they make make for an excess of tragedy that is too much for any audience to bear.

Still, the ultimate lesson that Fogelman wants to convey is worth listening to and following: no matter what our history, no matter how much life has brought us to our knees, there is still a future worth pursuing. Life Itself does not need to be as excruciating as it is to make that point, but it is a valuable point nonetheless. And despite my misgivings, I still found this film oddly compelling, although that could just be because I like keeping track of how people are related to each other. Ultimately, I wish Fogelman had done more with the concept of playing around with the unreliable narrator, which he is clearly enamored with but ultimately a little tepid in how he examines it. It actually starts off promisingly, as the initial narrator shows up in person as himself to basically say, “Hey look, I’m really here!” But afterwards it’s pretty straightforward, but if that adventurous spirit had hung around, Life Itself coulda been something.

Life Itself is Recommended If You Like: This Is Us at its most emotionally manipulative

Grade: 2 out of 5 Unreliable Narrators

This Is a Movie Review: Old Hollywood and Working-Class England Come Into Each Other’s Orbit When ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics

This post was originally published on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Vanessa Redgrave

Director: Paul McGuigan

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: R for Tenderly Shot Brief Nudity

Release Date: December 29, 2017 (Limited)

There’s something a little strange about that title, and it’s so small that you might not even notice it. It took a few weeks for it to even cross my mind. People frequently say “movie stars,” but who regularly says “film stars”? The title is the same as the memoir it’s based on, so I guess we have to pin this one on Peter Turner. Maybe it’s a British thing. But there is something appropriately spellbinding about this particular phrasing. “Film” is a traditionally more respectable term than the common and vulgar “movie,” so “film stars” has a way of lending gravitas to frivolousness. Such is the fate of big names whose times have passed them by like Gloria Grahame.

Grahame was, as one character put its, “a proper film star,” and as another clarifies, she “always played the tart.” She achieved fame in the late ’40s and early ’50s, primarily in noirs like The Big Heat and The Bad and the Beautiful (for which she won an Oscar). But as Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool opens, she is seeking stage work in London and looking for someone to take her disco dancing. Annette Bening acts the role with one layer upon another, wherein Grahame is always playing the part of the star in her day-to-day life. Or maybe a select few people really are just always that naturally alluring, i.e., they’re not really acting. Although, in a sense, everyone is always acting to some way, but perhaps with Grahame, her more outsize performances were much less of a put-on than the average person’s. Either way, into her orbit is drawn Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), and while their multiple decades age difference is a concern, it is no roadblock to genuine passion and affection.

Film Stars fundamentally tracks the importance of interpersonal acceptance. Gloria’s mother and sister are scandalized by her shacking up with a much younger man, while Peter’s family is there to take care of her when her cancer diagnosis becomes debilitating. But the greater struggle for acceptance is internal. Not only is it impossible for film stars to pass away in working-class English port towns, they cannot have diseases whose treatments are so aesthetically stripping. As Gloria comes to terms with her illness, the film takes on a woozy, dreamy quality. A humbling reality surrounds her, but a spectacular, star-making gaze is what she filters it through. It’s a little bit intoxicating.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is Recommended If You Like: Billy Elliot (for the sake of the Jame Bell/Julie Walters reunion), Being Julia, Sunset Blvd.

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Magical Cancer Recoveries

This Is a Movie Review: 20th Century Women

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This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup

Director: Mike Mills

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: R for Frankness When It Comes to Sexuality and Drug Use

Release Date: December 28, 2016 (Limited)

In this semi-autobiographical effort from writer/director Mike Mills (Beginners, Thumbsucker), Dorothea (Annette Bening) is a single mom struggling to raise her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) by herself in 1970s Southern California. The idea that she is struggling mostly comes from her own neurotic self. But regardless of how accurate her worries are, she decides to enlist the help of some of the women in her life in the making of Jamie into a man. Her cadre includes Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a wayward boarder at Dorothea’s house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a plainly independent teenager prone to sneaking into Jamie’s bedroom (but not doing much else once she gets there). Also on hand is the rugged and sensitive William (Billy Crudup), another boarder.

Your appreciation of 20th Century Women will likely depend on how much you can relate to this living situation, whether via experience or imagination. For me personally, I could not connect with it too deeply because I found the relationships between the main characters ever-so-slightly off-putting. They do not lack for affection, and they are thoroughly observed, but they are uncomfortable in a way that makes this film easier to merely appreciate rather than embrace.

There are a couple elements that I do want to praise without qualification. The film often evokes a dreamy, hazy quality that evokes the liberal atmosphere of the time. Splashes of vibrant color are strewn across the screen, and montages of major incidents ramp up the intensity via manipulation-of-time editing techniques. Then there is the dinner scene, in which everyone in attendance suddenly finds themselves tasked with teaching Jamie the proper way to sexually please a woman. Crudup delivers a soon-to-be-classic line of sage wisdom on that topic (don’t watch the trailer if you don’t want to be spoiled), and those who see 20th Century Women will never be the same again.

20th Century Women is Recommended If You Like: Beginners, The Kids Are All Right

Grade: 3 out of 5 Billowy Shirts

This Is a Movie Review: Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes Passion Project ‘Rules Don’t Apply’ is a Strange Hot Mess

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This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2016.

Starring: Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Matthew Broderick, Annette Bening

Director: Warren Beatty

Running Time: 126 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for a Few Snafus Involving Alcohol and Bodily Fluids

Release Date: November 23, 2016

Rules Don’t Apply has four credited editors and 16 credited producers, and the entire of all of their handiwork can be felt onscreen. Warren Beatty’s passion project about the ’50s Hollywood goings-on in billionaire producer/aviator Howard Hughes’ empire has about as many approaches as it does characters, and it has A LOT of characters. The two main ones are virginal aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and her driver, aspiring businessman Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich). The pair’s flirtatiousness is doomed by Hughes’ rule prohibiting romance between any of his employees and also by the film losing track of their story. Joining them is a who’s who of the friends that Beatty has made over the years, most of them flitting in and out for a hot second.

While the wild shifts in pacing and tone prevent Rules Don’t Apply from amounting to much, there are plenty of details scattered around that are worth some pleasures (and if corralled more efficiently, could have made for a much more accomplished end product). Much of this is to do with some oft-repeated, almost mantra-like bits of dialogue. After Howard tells Marla where their H2O is from, she wonders aloud, sounding as if she is learning for the first time either the entire concept of liquids or how to speak English, “Hmm. Water. From Maine.” Also contributing to the lack of experience of living as a human is Howard’s bizarre insistence on a very particular ice cream flavor. Perhaps that same whimsy explains all the alliteration in the character names.

Hidden beneath this weird mess of nominal satire is a fascinating performance from Beatty. “Hidden” is the optimum word here, both because this film is hard to make sense of and because Beatty often shoots himself in the shadows, with Howard an enigmatic presence taking care of most of his business behind closed doors and via middlemen. But his inscrutable ways are commanding. The chaos surrounding him serves this svengali’s arc well. It is almost as if Beatty figured out exactly the movie he wanted to make but forgot to tell everyone else. To be fair, that is understandable when you have four editors and 16 producers.

Rules Don’t Apply is Recommended If You Like: Being Confused

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Bowls of Banana Nut Ice Cream