Tag Archives: Soderbergh

The Report

15 Nov

‘The Report’: It’s CIA ‘enhanced interrogation’ put to post-9/11 test in page-turner of a movie‘The Report’: It’s CIA ‘enhanced interrogation’ put to post-9/11 test in page-turner of a movie

tmp-rpt

 

Scott Z. Burns has been mostly known as a screenwriter on such Steven Soderbergh projects as “The Informant!” (2009), “Contagion” (2011) and “Side Effects” (2013). Here, in this dark delve into recent U.S. misdeeds, Burns not only writes but takes the director’s chair, with Soderbergh as producer. The simplistic title “The Report” represents something more complex and foreboding – “The Torture Report,” with that middle word crossed off as soon as it spills across the screen in the opening credits. The report in question concerns waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11, and is deeply redacted by the CIA.

If you haven’t seen “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant take on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, there’s a scene early on demonstrating the use of the interrogation techniques. It’s throughly unpleasant, and“The Report” dials the discomfort up from a 9 to, say, an 11. The film begins with U.S. Senate aide and researcher Dan Jones (Adam Driver) consulting with a lawyer about possibly treasonous charges against him for “relocating” a CIA document, then winds back to when Jones, who toiled in counterintelligence after college, lands on the staff of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and is tasked to lead a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee probe into the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11.

It’s mostly a paper trail chase, but a riveting one – think “All the President’s Men” (1976) replete with a mini-me version of Deep Throat. Jones and his team are granted access to documents in a secure basement vault on CIA turf, but no documents are to leave the chamber, and Jones and associates aren’t allowed to interview any of the operatives involved. Meanwhile Feinstein (Annette Bening), solemn and serious, applies pressure to agency leaders under the Bush and Obama regimes, finding the desire for it all to go away is clearly bipartisan.

Through documents (which lead to dramatizations of events) we learn of contractors James Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith), slithering sorts and former military intel who sell a fictitious (or composite) CIA honcho named Bernadette (Maura Tierney) on enhanced interrogation even without proven results. From the PowerPoint presentation alone, viewers’ eyebrows will raise, but for Bernadette it’s a key weapon in the war on terrorism – Geneva Conventions be damned. As a pair, Mitchell and Jessen are something of a disturbing chuckle, lapping up taxpayer-bought scotch aboard jets and going about their business like Kidd and Wint in the Bond flick “Diamonds are Forever” (1971). Through it all Tierney’s dutiful top cop promises results to her higher-ups and sits and watches the heinous shenanigans (naked men being beaten and sleep deprived by heavy metal music played at eardrum-bursting levels) with cold steely resolve, forever waiting.

The definition of “torture,” as explained in the film, is complicated: It turns out that if you can extract information that can save lives, how you got it doesn’t matter; if not, enhanced interrogation is a human rights violation, and you’ll be left out to dry. Burns orchestrates some nice juxtapositions in setting: Most of the film takes place in dark, windowless rooms, be it that basement vault where Jones and crew toil away in, the subterranean hellholes on foreign soil where Mitchell and Jessen perform their dirty deeds or the soulless conference room on Capital Hill that serves as a boxing ring for Feinstein and CIA Director John Brennan (Ted Levine).

From top to bottom, the performances impress. Bening shines as the fiery Feinstein demanding accountability, and Linda Powell brings similar intensity as loyal Feinstein staffer Marcy Morris; John Hamm adds rational cool as Denis McDonough, the Obama chief of staff trying to hold the middle ground. Of course, the film hangs from Driver’s dogged research wonk, whose focus and commitment to the task and idealism is imbued with a heaviness and signs of fraying over the long-fought years. Words matter – in this case, a very specific one.

The Laundromat

10 Oct

‘The Laundromat’: We go through a spin cycle while Soderbergh cleans house on bad finance

Image result for the laundromat

Steven Soderbergh’s films have always been stacked with panache and verve. Take the mod hipness of “Out of Sight” (1998) or the “Ocean’s” films, let alone bigger, more serious affairs such as “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic” – both made in 2000 and both striking Oscar gold – in which the filmmaker’s wry, slick sarcasm still manages to work its way up and out. That’s why taking in “The Laundromat” is somewhat disconcerting: It’s got style and sass for sure, but it’s someone else’s pen that Soderbergh’s wielding, most conspicuously that of Adam McKay, who inked quick irreverent, knee-jerk changeups into “The Big Short” (2015), the artfully outrageous dissection of the subprime housing collapse.

“The Laundromat” too is about a financial fissure in America, though it’s a more intimate and less grand affair than “The Big Short” and employs loosely bound segments (Secret 1, 2, 3 and so on) to bring you the not-so-great news. The first segment, “The Meek Are Screwed,” obviously caught my eye. The meek are mentioned relentlessly throughout the film, lemmings we should care deeply about no matter how many go over a cliff at the promise of financial security and greener pastures (the American Dream; nay, scheme). The first meek we meet are a retired couple, Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) and her husband, Joe (James Cromwell), who take a pleasure cruise across the placid waters of Lake George. There’s an accident, Joe doesn’t make it and Ellen, who thinks she’s going to buy a condo in the sky, drink mai tais and watch the sun rise, is in for a rude awakening. The insurer of Joe’s policy is a mailbox somewhere in Nevis with funnel after funnel to shell corporations elsewhere. It’s a maddening, endless web of paper that if put into boxing terms might be Ali’s infamous rope-a-dope – you can slug away all you want, but in the end you’re exhausted and primed for a knockout.

Ellen’s a slugger. And over the course of what amounts to a long, drawn-out bout, you begin to really admire her moxie. She starts with that mailbox, which belongs to a somber, cagey gent named Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright), whose personal life proves nearly as dubious as his dealings. Ellen may be grasping at straws, but Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns follow the trail with the same diligence they tracked the source of a lethal pathogen in the pandemic thriller “Contagion” (2011). Along the path we get myriad digressions, be it a corrupt and extremely rich African ex-pat named Charles (Nonso Anozie) philandering poolside with his daughter’s college roommate, two naive Americans slugging tequila in the wrong Mexican cantina or the British businessman (Matthias Schoenaerts) who tries to shake down a Chinese matriarch on her home turf – not a good strategy.  

It turns out all roads lead to Panama (yes, this is the saga of the infamous Panama Papers, that if not for Wikileaks and the subprime debacle might have been more boldly underscored in history books) and there we get the cherry duo of Ramón (Antonio Banderas) and Jürgen (Gary Oldman), law partners at a firm that manages nearly 25,000 shell companies who provide the kind of aside insights that Margot Robbie did from a hot tub in “The Big Short.” The pair are dashing, charming, and you’re thrown into a trance every time they rationalize the state of the universe with a shrug and wry smile. Their smugness is intoxicating, but it’s hard to root for the shell gamers as they inflict pain and suffering upon the meek with their “just bending the rules” machinations. The charismatic actors forge devilish chemistry too, twirling around each other like Fred and Ginger; Oldman, who won an Oscar last year for playing Churchill, gets to take a German accent out for a spin. For the most, he handles the curves nicely, but in the pit he lays it on a bit thick.

As things come full cycle, Soderbergh and Burns suddenly seem to be at a loss. Perhaps they should have done more with Sharon Stone’s persnickety real estate agent in a clingy sequin dress, or David Schwimmer’s boat operator, royally screwed by big insurance. But no, as this “Laundromat” closes we get put through the ideological wringer as the fourth wall is kicked down for a dour dose of pedagogy that’s meant to incite. Unfortunately, all the lazy symbolism does is agitate and bleach out what had been a luridly piquant sojourn to Central America and other unsavory ports of global corruption.

Unsane

23 Mar

 

 

There’s little room for debate that Stephen Soderbergh’s one of the most intriguing directors working (Paul Thomas Anderson and Nicolas Winding Refn are also on that list, to give you a taste). There’s not much the “considering retirement” auteur hasn’t tinkered with: non-professional actors (“Bubble”), a “serious film” staring a porn actress (“The Girlfriend Experience”), a Liberace biopic (“Behind the Candelabra”) and of course more mainstream fare such as “Traffic” that scored him an Oscar. Many of Soderbergh’s films, such as “Magic Mike,” the “Ocean’s” films and “Logan Lucky,” possess a playful wit. He seems to be able to conjure up a hip nod and a wink on a dime and adroitly inject a seam of bleak reality as need be (see “Contagion,” or “Sex, Lies and Videotape”). Here Soderbergh tries something new – not groundbreaking, to be sure, but genre-savvy nonetheless and shot on the down low with iPhones (not new, as Sean Baker did a similar trick for his quirky indie gem “Tangerine”). Despite all those curiosity-piquing tags, the result’s a muddled mix of great performances, edgy atmosphere and infuriating “is this really happening” plot twists.

If you’ve caught any of the trailers for “Unsane,” you might think it’s somewhere between ’80s (well 1979, to be exact) B-roll from “When a Stranger Calls” and M. Knight Shyamalan’s “Split” (2016). It lies somewhat closer to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with elements of the aforementioned flicks sprinkled in, and it’s a tough movie to discuss without spoilers. We meet up with the gloriously named Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy from “The Crown”) a young woman who works a generic job in a generic office with a married male boss whose mawkish demeanor and suggestion for a team trip – just them two – verges on a #MeToo violation. Sawyer, no pushover, seems to know how to control the situation and exits with an awkward, “I should get back to work.” She also seems to know what she wants, hooking up with a guy on Tinder, telling him the night will go his way, but in the morning he has get out and forget they ever met. Back at Sawyer’s pad just before the event goes down, Sawyer has a breakdown. Said dude, wise to the cloud of dysfunction, exits and then, through late-night Google searches for support groups and therapists, we learn that Sawyer has been the victim of a stalker up in our blessed Boston and relocated to a Pennsylvania burb to escape her pursuer’s reaches. Continue reading

Logan Lucky

22 Aug

It’s only been four years, but feels much longer, since director Steven Soderbergh last treated filmgoing audiences to one of his quirky, deconstructive gems. Granted, “Side Effects” (2013) was something of a disappointment, but the director’s HBO biopic of flamboyant performer Liberace that same year generated plenty of heat, as did his previous feature, “Magic Mike” (2012). Soderbergh, an against-the-grain filmmaker, has always been one to toss the dice, be it his casting of a martial arts expert or a porn star in character-driven lead roles (“Haywire” and “The Girlfriend Experience”) or being one of the first to deliver a film simultaneously into theaters and on-demand (“Bubble” in 2005). For his latest, the American auteur taps into the skin of some of his more commercial fare – “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Out of Sight” – while farming fresh territory.

So it’s no surprise “Logan Lucky” is a heist caper – though not nearly as hip as the “Ocean” films. It’s set at a massive Nascar speedway in North Carolina, with the bulk of its protagonists down-on-their-luck West Virginians. Glitz and glamour are scarce, but arrive in the form of Riley Keough (so wickedly good in “American Honey” and adding to her stock here) as one of the Logan clan in on a plot to drain the speedway’s vault, and Katie Holmes as the ex-wife who’s traded up in social class and occupies a sprawling McMansion. At the center looms lovable Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum, who’s been in several of Soderbergh’s more recent projects, including the Mike in “Magic Mike”) a golden-armed QB who never made good his promise to play at the collegiate or professional level because of a bum knee; as a result he toils as a second-string laborer, and a prideful one at that, refusing financial help from the ex who’s constantly offering to buy him a cellphone so they can better coordinate handoffs of their beauty pageant-obsessed daughter. Continue reading

The Trump supporter profile on film

21 Nov

Angry white men on film: Seven times cinema got to the Trump vote before us

Most of us in the proudly liberal-leaning Hub are still in shock from Donald Trump’s historic and controversial “win” last week, making the demagogue the 45th president-elect. Throughout the presidential campaign there were near-riotous breakouts at Trump rallies and the candidate famously offended minorities, immigrants and, most resoundingly, women. “The Art of the Deal” Don looked primed to go up in flames at any turn and got away with language and behavior that would get any wage-earning wonk fired without a second consideration, but come Nov. 8 there was pushback from a certain populace in mid- and and Southern states who had been suffering quietly through the long, slow manufacturing ebb and were left out of the high-tech, life sciences and servicing surges – the non-college-educated white male, known as hard-working union members in more prosperous times, who had previously delivered swing states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan blue. We on the coasts scratch our head why, slow to realize the cold sting of disenfranchisement as a powerful motivator. Below are seven films that delve into the psyche of the dislocated white male, usually outcast, antisocial and operating outside the law:

 

“Hell or High Water” (2016)
Boston-born Ben Foster and Chris Pine (the new Captain Kirk) play brothers desperate to keep the family farm by heisting banks. Foster’s Tanner, just out of the slammer, has been there before, but Pine’s Toby is divorced and struggling to stay afloat financially and maintain a relationship with his progeny. The bureaucratic bank holding the homestead’s deed plays the heavy, and Jeff Bridges checks in as the sympathetic, but dutiful sheriff caught in the mix on the eve of his retirement. Pine and Foster make the frustration of hopeless conclusions, and the flight against them, deeply palpable. David Mackenzie, the British-born director who turned in the saucy “Young Adam” (2003), renders the Texas setting like a sequel to “No Country for Old Men” and registers one of the best films of the year so far. See also: “Out of the Furnace” (2013).

 

“All the Right Moves” (1983)
A young Tom Cruise plays a high school football star in dying steel-mill Pennsylvania who values his gridiron prowess as a way out of the economic dead-end, but his strict coach (Craig T. Nelson) may have other ideas. The death of the working-class American Dream and the despair as big biz going overseas for cheaper labor remains pointedly relevant. See also: “Hoosiers” (1986)  Continue reading