Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Brief Reviews: The Report and Marriage Story

In the Driver's Seat -- Two reviews by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Two movies starring Adam Driver that you can see in the comfort of your home: The comedy-drama, Marriage Story (Netflix) also stars an impressive Scarlett Johansson and is a strong Oscar contender.  The Report (Amazon) is a political thriller with Annette Bening as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, tasking Driver's character to investigate the CIA's Enhanced Interrogation Program (torture) in the aftermath of 9/11.

Marriage Story - A Review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher (Netflix)

It's strange, here we have one of the most highly regarded films of the year, and I couldn't get anyone, male or female to watch it with me,  Is it me?  Scarlett Johansson?  Adam Driver?  Both of them?  All three of us?  I have decided to blame Kramer vs. Kramer, the 1979 weeper that won five Oscars, including Best Picture, beating out the classic Apocalypse Now (the horror, the horror).  It is my belief that the film gods were so offended they poisoned the waters for every "nice people going through a divorce while trying not to damage cute child" flick in the future.  FYI: The comedy-drama Marriage Story is head and shoulders above KvK.

Marriage Story lays its cards on the table immediately.  Charlie (Driver) narrates a quick run-through listing all of wife Nicole's (Johansson) endearing qualities as we see her in highlight format displaying them.  Then the script flips and Nicole does the same for Charlie.  We learn that these lists have been assigned by a divorce counselor as a device to remember the value the other person holds.  Charlie, you see, is a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker whose gift for avant-garde playwriting/directing has made him a rising star.  After convincing budding LA-based TV star Nicole to act in his production company, a whirlwind romance led to marriage, parenthood--son, Henry (Azhy Robertson)--and less than a decade later, a break-up.

At the root of it all, it seems, is Charlie's oft-stated claim that “We’re a New York family,” a belief Nicole never bought into, as her family and her career aspirations remain in Los Angeles.  A TV pilot could be the big break for Nicole, so she takes Henry to her mother's (Julie Hagerty) home.  And a split that begins amicably enough turns when lawyers enter the mix: the brilliant Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) for Nicole; the shark Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta) and then the lackadaisical Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) for Charlie.  As we move wildly but seamlessly from laughter at human foibles to mistiness at human frailty and back again, we find along the way that these characters are as likable as they are maddening, and we truly care what happens to them.

Marriage Story may not be Annie Hall (what is?), but like Woody Allen's classic, it portrays genuine people in situations we can either relate to or at least understand.  Noah Baumbach draws dynamic portrayals that are beautifully cast.  Adam Driver adds his most layered performance to his vitae, this is arguably Scarlett Johansson's best performance to date, and Laura Dern is electric.  Baumbach's name should be mentioned a lot this winter, as he is one of the producers, and this film will gain notice in Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay circles as one of the best films of the year.  Look for a half-dozen Oscar nominations.
8.5 out of 10

The Report - a Review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher (Amazon Prime)

Consider The Report the counterpoint to Zero Dark Thirty's point.  Presented in plodding gumshoe form like Spotlight, it's the kind of film that depends on a compelling story well-acted and presented to be successful, and for the most part, it succeeds.  This fact-based story describes the six-year struggle of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) staffer Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) to investigate CIA's post-9/11 “Detention and Interrogation Program;” specifically, its “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”--a handy euphemism for torture.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Dick Cheney ominously warned that the US would be “going to the dark side” to make sure future terrorist attacks on our soil would not occur.  The translation of this vague edict is left to the interpretation of intelligence officer Bernadette (Maura Tierney) and CIA counsel Thomas Eastman (Michael C. Hall). They, in turn, resort to indiscriminate "extraordinary rendition" (illegal international kidnappings) and spiriting the prisoners to "black sites."  They hire two psychologists, James Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith), whose research claims to obtain information by generating dread and “learned helplessness” in its victim through such techniques as stress positions, waterboarding, insects, mock burials, and sleep deprivation through deafening noise.

Jones' report is harrowing, and it strikes at institutional insanity.  Example: Jones relates to Feinstein that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been waterboarded 183 times without results, prompting her to ask, "If it works, why did they need to do it 183 times?" As Jones becomes more incensed, he becomes more committed to documenting war crimes and making them public.  But the CIA is powerful; so are the politicians that support the policy--even Obama, through his Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm), who gives a hearty thanks but no thanks to Jones for his efforts.  In his ongoing battles,  overt and covert, Jones confronts a variety of Beltway insiders, friend and foe: CIA director John Brennan (Ted Levine), CIA Counsel Caroline D. Krauss (Jennifer Morrison), Office of Medical Services physician and torture opponent Dr. Raymond Nathan (Tim Blake Nelson), FBI Agent working the Bin Laden investigation Ali Soufan (Fajer Al-Kaisi),  New York Times reporter (Matthew Rhys), to whom Jones considers leaking elements of his report, defense attorney Cyrus Clifford (Corey Stoll), a variety of congressmen played by actors you will recognize, and look for the character Gretchen, played by Driver's real-life wife Joanne Tucker.

Some images in The Report are difficult to watch--if you've seen pictures from Abu Ghraib, you know what we mean--and some of the re-enactments suggest such disturbing techniques that the Czarina left to read her book in peace.  As can be seen by the cast list, a ton of top talent signed on.  Driver is driven, and Annette Bening stands out, playing Feinstein as strong but pragmatic and clever.   The film has currency: a whistleblower tale that comes down on the side of the informant and reminds us that taking on the government is a dangerous business.  Like Spotlight, mentioned above,  The Report is talky and grim, but riveting; unlike Spotlight, though, no justice is found to satisfy the indignation we feel.  Despite years of fighting the good fight, Jones was left unsatisfied for, as you know, no one was convicted for violating the Geneva Conventions for crimes against humanity.

The Irishman - Rumination on a Rumination

The Irishman  - Rumination on a Rumination  -- by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

After reading Charles Brandt's 2004 book, I Heard You Paint Houses, Robert DeNiro approached Martin Scorsese about bringing the story to the screen.  Through numerous fits and starts, including studios not interested in these two making another gangster film (imagine that) and the consideration of breaking it into two films, we finally have it, 15 years late, but right in time.  Why now?  Well, first, the technology has finally advanced to the point where major characters' faces can be de-aged through CGI so that DeNiro, for example, can believably range from 24 to 80-years-old--although a bulky midriff and creaky joints betray the notion, at times.  Second, streaming services have become viable venues for major films and stars.  Also, home viewing is preferable to theaters in minimizing imperfections of the de-aging process and making the hefty 209-minute runtime more palatable.

For his cast, Scorsese mined actors from his own films, plus The SopranosBoardwalk Empire, and other mob-based shows.  Rumor has it Joe Pesci had to be asked 50 times to come out of retirement, and surprisingly, this is the first film pairing the director and Al Pacino.  In sum, they form the best cast possible for one of his mob films.  Fittingly, The Irishman opens in typical Scorsese fashion with a long tracking shot, accompanied by the classic doo-wop tune, In the Still of the Night.  This time the camera meanders through the halls of a retirement home, eventually landing in a close-up of the grim, craggy face of an old man in a wheelchair.  He is Frank Sheeran (DeNiro), the eponymous Irishman.  We don't know it yet, but the director has set the tone that will remain throughout the film, not the action-packed rise-and-fall thriller, but rather an elegiac rumination of a life that led to this moment--alone, in a nursing home.  And when one considers the director and his actors we can't help but conclude that Scorsese and DeNiro are saying as much in real-life subtext as they are in the telling of the tale.

Frank, as the narrator, reflects on his rise from freight hauler to trusted associate of both Mafia and Teamster hierarchy.  He starts dipping his toes in crime, meeting Philly mobster Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale).  But a chance encounter changes his life: Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the boss of a small Pennsylvania Mafia family and a respected fixer and negotiator, takes a shine to Frank and adopts him as a protege.  Through Bufalino, Frank meets Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), Don of the Philadelphia family; Russell's cousin Bill (Ray Romano), who is Jimmy Hoffa's attorney, and eventually a fateful association with Hoffa (Al Pacino) himself.

A running storyline involves a trip Frank and Russell make with their wives, Irene Sheeran (Stephanie Kurtzuba), Frank's second wife, and Carrie Bufalino (Kathrine Narducci).  Stops along the way, introduce flashbacks that create a historical timeline, melding US politics, the Teamsters, and La Cosa Nostra in the macro, and individual mob vignettes in the micro.  These vignettes illustrate the lethal nature of the lifestyle, sometimes with just a caption that reveals a character's fate, sometimes with the re-creation of a fatal capping.  Frank's business and personal life intersect most vividly through his daughter, the quiet Peggy (Lucy Gallina as the child, Anna Paquin as the young woman), who becomes the metaphor for Frank's relationships at home.  She also provides the emotional connection, or lack of same, with Bufalino and Hoffa.

Sheeran's story has been disputed as inaccurate at best and possibly fabricated, but thankfully that didn't deter DeNiro in making The Irishman.  It's Scorsese's best film since 2006's The Departed (no, we do not consider Wolf of Wall Street to be in the ballpark).  Steve Zaillian's (Schindler's List) screen adaptation is talky, yes, but that's what this story is about: conversations, deals, negotiations, and, finally, contracts.  Regular Scorsese collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, does yeowoman's work pulling all of the loose threads together, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and production designer Bob Shaw capture the atmosphere of the La Cosa Nostra and Teamster heyday, and Robbie Robinson's (The Band) musical score mixes old standards and original music to set the tone.  As one would expect, all of the performances are excellent, but we have to give a special nod to Joe Pesci for his toned-down, nuanced portrayal of Russell Bufalino.  It's a side of the actor we haven't seen before, and among this galaxy of stars, he shines the brightest.  Expect recognition for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, and a couple Acting nods (unfortunately, Robinson's score does not qualify, due to the heavy use of previously recorded material).
9.5 out of 10

Knives Out

Knives Out -- a review by FilmZ

Rian Johnson's film resume' is intriguing and eclectic, and his Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the only truly good entry in that series since The Empire Strikes Back, so it should surprise no one that he has written and directed a cracking good old-fashioned whodunit.   As a fan of the genre and one who has tried his hand at writing them, let me note that a good Agatha Christie-type mystery is no mean feat.  And from the opening shot of the dark old mansion on a misty day with two giant black hounds loping across the lawn, the mood is set.

Following his 85th birthday party, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) — a bestselling mystery writer and multi-millionaire patriarch of a dysfunctional family — is found dead of an apparent suicide. Soon after local cops Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfeld) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) begin questioning family members, super sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a Southern-fried Hercule Poirot shows up.  He has been hired by an anonymous benefactor to prove the death is murder, and his reputation as an uncanny bloodhound has preceded him.

So, the game is afoot, as Blanc interviews the array of reprobates and weirdos that make up the Thrombey clan.  In the classic mystery fashion, all of the suspects have something to hide,  all have reason to want the old man offed.  There's daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), a self-made business tycoon, not counting the $1 million dollar stake her dad provided; son Walt (Michael Shannon) who runs the publishing empire that only handles dad's bestsellers; Joni (Toni Collette) a New Age social media influencer whose product "Flam" is of dubious purpose; Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson) whose bigotry is exceeded only by his philandering.   And then there are assorted grandchildren: an alt-right snot, a leftist coed, and most notably Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans) the blackest sheep in a family of black sheep.  The only decent survivors, it seems, are Greatnana (K Callan), a dowager, and Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan's immigrant nurse whom everyone in the family loves even as no one knows her home country (Bolivia? Uruguay? Paraguay? Brazil?)--but even those two have their secrets. The house itself is like a giant Clue board through which the above suspects and several more move furtively, their behavior announcing their guilt even as every utterance asserts their innocence and every index finger points elsewhere.

Rian Johnson has surely done Dame Agatha proud with a twisty mystery that spins us around when we think we have everything straight.  The cast seems to be having marvelously evil fun.  Chris Evans runs gleefully counter to his Captain America image and Toni Collette, as usual, steals every scene she is in as the vapidest guru to hit the screen in years.  In the lead, Daniel Craig expands the comic chops he flexed in 2017's sneaky-good heist film, Logan Lucky.  It's a foregone conclusion that a comedy will not win any awards, but none of the Oscar-nominated films will give you a better time at the movies this year.
9.0 out of 10

21 Bridges

21 Bridges -- A Review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

For Don Swedanya's last hurrah before leaving to winter in the Crimea, FilmZ magnanimously allowed Don, one of the two OS (Original Serfs), to pick the film.  One could be forgiven if he or she mistook a movie starring Chadwick Boseman, J.K.Simmons in support, and the Russo brothers producing to be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  But no, 21 Bridges is a police procedural, efficiently directed by Brian Kirk, that will entertain fans of the genre on a cold winter night's streaming.  Think of it as a 21st century, less fascist Dirty Harry with racial overtones.

Detective Andre Davis (Boseman) is the son of a slain NYPD cop who has developed a reputation of shooting before enough questions have been asked.  He is called in on a case that demands a quick and decisive conclusion.  Two highly armed and trained ex-military men,  Ray (Taylor Kitsch), who is White, and  Michael (Stephan James), a younger Black man whose deceased brother was Ray's friend, on a tip break into a restaurant to steal 30 kilos of cocaine. Shortly after they arrive, they find a treasure trove of the stuff, and several cars full of police to confront them.  Ray is having none of it, and he opens fire, horrifying Michael as he murders all but one cop, and even she is near death.  Davis arrives on the scene to find Capt. McKenna (J.K. Simmons) wanting him to find the cop-killers and take them out.  McKenna assigns narcotics cop Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller) to assist Davis.  The FBI is pushing to take over the investigation, but Davis bargains for time.  His idea is to close off every bridge and tunnel out of Manhattan and get every available cop onto the streets.

But a police procedural wouldn't be a police procedural without crosses and double-crosses, which the two robbers figure out, and the answers are to be found on thumb drives that fall into their hands.  The body count continues to rise, the clock ticks, the FBI agents are itching to take over.  As Davis starts to figure things out, too, he realizes he has to keep either Ray or Michael alive to get the answers he needs even while every cop in the city wants them dead.

Screenwriters Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan serve up a fast-paced, intense action tale that keeps us engaged, though twisty as it is, it telegraphs its punches.  The dialogue is a bit too John Wayne--that is, macho.  Still, we are led to understand Ray and Michael, even as we detest their actions.  Kirk coaxes excellent performances from a very cool cast, particularly Sienna Miller (whom we are not a fan of personally because of her disparaging remarks about Pittsburgh), but she is an absolute chameleon here.  Yes, the premise is far-fetched and predictable, but it moves at a good pace and it's fun.
7.5 out of 10

Ford v Ferrari

Ford v Ferrari -- a Review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Director James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Logan)  brings an immersive, kinetic style that keeps the lengthy Ford v Ferrari (runtime 2:29) from overstaying its welcome.  Throw in two dynamic actors--Matt Damon as race car developer Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as mechanic/driver Ken Miles--to supercharge the charisma, and we get one of the most enjoyable movies of the year.

It's the mid-1960s, and Ford Motor Company is losing out to competitor Chevrolet in both quality and style.  With the baby boomer generation entering its car-buying years, Ford marketing manager Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) pitches a plan to CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) to shed the company's stodgy image by making sportier models and developing a racing division.  A scheme to buy out reigning LeMans champ Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) ends up insulting both owners.  Ford orders his managers to develop a team that will beat the Italians, and Iacocca approaches Shelby to head that team, promising him carte blanche.  Taking Iacocca at his word, Shelby approaches old friend Ken Miles to drive as well as help with the design.  Unfortunately, Shelby and Miles, race car experts who don't suffer fools, along with pit boss Phil Remington (Ray McKinnon) and the rest of the design and testing crew have to deal with Ford suits who have huge egos and small minds.  It's bad enough they have to go against Ferrari, but they also have to deal with the nastiest, most self-aggrandizing of the bunch, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), Ford's right-hand man.  He undermines Miles at every turn because of a brutally honest assessment Ken gives regarding one of Beebe's automotive babies.

As much as FvF is a formulaic racing yarn--will the plucky Davids overcome the unbeatable Goliath?--it is, at heart, a story about relationships, both human and socio-economic class.  Carroll Shelby was a tough former military test pilot whose bad heart betrays his own racing career.  He recognizes much of himself, and then some, in Ken Miles, the WWII D-Day tank driver for whom racing was life, and cars were his passion.  For all of his maverick ways, Ken is a loving father to son Peter (Noah Jupe) and is perfectly matched with his wife Mollie (Caitriona), the only person Ken truly fears.  Shelby and Miles work together like hand in glove, two self-made working-class men tempered like steel.  They are blue-collar heroes whose industry and ingenuity line the pockets of capitalists who hold the delusion that they did it themselves--and happily take the credit.  Finally, it's about the relationship between humans and the automobile, and that may be the most irrational relationship of all.

Mangold goes the extra mile (pardon the pun) to show what's at stake during a race--the stress on the car, the danger to the driver.  No wide pans or overhead shots that depersonalize the race, making the cars look like toys that fit in grooves.  He sets the cameras on the doors, the fenders, the bumpers, inside the vehicle, so 200 mph feels like it.  Screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller provide the typical buddy humor and success-story sturm und drang, but they also bring colorful lingo from both Shelby's Texas and Miles' England as well as technical jargon that intrigues us even as it loses us. Marco Beltrami's and Buck Sanders' pulse-pounding soundtrack is reminiscent of Mark Knopfler's "Speedway at Nazareth."  Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael brings the grease gun heroism of Shelby and Miles racetrack world in sharp contrast with the slick, barren corporate office suites of Ford Motors.  But it is the seamless film editing by Andrew Buckland, Michael McCusker, and Dirk Westervelt that makes the lengthy film fly.  This, along with other technical categories provide the best bet for awards.
8.5 out of 10

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