Adam Sohmer Tag

The Report

The Report (2019)

Sitting at home during the early stages of what may turn out to be a genuinely spectacular pandemic, I sometimes let my mind drift over recent history, with specific key aspects of select periods pointing to some deeper meaning.

 

Sure, it may be the wine talking, but there are truths that only become apparent when allowed to ruminate without the burden of an overly hectic social schedule. Facts like how 2019 was unlike any other year in that it indeed was the Year of Adam Driver.

 

Think about it: Last year, Driver starred in no fewer than four full-length North American releases: The Dead Don’t Die, Marriage Story, The Rise of Skywalker, and The Report, the last of which came and went in a haze all too fast to garner nearly as much box office success as it deserves.

 

Released in November ’19 a month ahead of the super-hyped wrap to the original Star Wars saga, The Report places Driver in the role of Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones who, in 2009, was enlisted by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California to investigate the ’05 destruction of videotapes documenting allegedly abusive CIA interrogations of prisoners in the months following 9/11. 

 

When the report detailing the findings of the original two-year investigation is brushed aside, Feinstein directs Jones and his team of six to dig deeper, leading them to discover horrible truths that the CIA preferred to remain buried.

 

As a thriller, The Report relentlessly grabs viewers by the collar as we’re taken behind the scenes of the torture program that came to be known for the introduction of the term waterboarding into the American vernacular.

 

Like Three Days of the Condor and other classic thrillers of the ‘70s, The Report builds tension by allowing the story to unfold around a central character, in this case Jones, whose sincerity and near-disbelief at the attempts to thwart his investigation only inspire him to push harder, if not always with the greatest of prudence.

 

Directed by Scott Z. Burns, The Report is a big film with big-ticket stars that remarkably maintains the feel of a lean, independent production. Special effects are replaced by a keen eye on detail, as Jones and his team methodically research the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” videos of which went missing shortly before the original investigation kicked into gear. This isn’t some Watergate-style 18-minute gap in audio—hundreds of hours of tapes quickly went MIA thanks to the CIA, or so Jones and his team maintained as the followup investigation built momentum over five years. According to history, the small group dove into more than six million pages of documents, conducted interviews, and met with interference by the Agency and members of the Obama administration, among others. 

 

Unlike thrillers that expand the narrative into the leads’ personal lives, The Report is all about the business at hand. We’re left to surmise that Jones’ home and love lives are anemic at best, as we see him work tirelessly with an added boost of adrenalin every time he or a member of his staff discover a new and potentially beneficial revelation.

 

Playing a man who is consumed by his mission, Driver portrays Jones as supremely buttoned-up, humorless, and wholly wonkish as he dives into a sea of paper in pursuit of the true story. Burns, making his directorial debut, lets the day-to-day details of the story build as the 6,700-page report takes shape. Aside from occasional violence depicted in flashback scenes to the CIA black sites where the abuses took place, The Report is all talk and tension in the best possible way.

 

It is a challenge to present relatively recent news.Yet, Burns and the cast pull it off with what felt like a never-ending race from the windowless box where the team did their research to meetings with administration officials, the CIA, and conversations with anonymous sources. Throughout, Driver maintains a focused, sort of angry composure that had me anticipating an explosion of emotion that never materializes. Instead, he is simply a professional with no intention of letting up, especially as it becomes clear that early suspicions about allegations of torture are in fact true.

 

As a screenwriter, Burns collaborated with co-producer Steven Soderbergh on several films, including Contagion, which unsurprisingly is getting cited in current news stories. He eschews oversized scenes for adherence to the story, acknowledging that the story itself is more powerful than any dramatic flourish can provide. Of course, this means the viewer must keep up with the dialogue, which is mixed clear and upfront, with sound effects and music playing their roles as distant seconds to the words.

 

This is Driver’s sweet spot. His dry yet impassioned delivery comes across as honest and sincere, whereas a lesser actor may have lapsed into a more over-the-top presentation throughout the film. As Sen. Feinstein, Annette Bening becomes the character—from her outward appearance to her mannerisms in public and private, she embodies the senator’s pleasant, no-nonsense manner without it becoming a caricature.

 

Upon its release, The Report came and went without making a dent at the box office, which is a shame, given that you will be hard-pressed to find an equally gripping film with a commitment to historical accuracy that makes it required viewing for fans of historical narratives. The combination of a tight script and first-rate cast makes The Report a home run for Burns, box office losses to the contrary.   

Adam Sohmer

Longtime consumer and professional technology specialist Adam Sohmer is president
and
owner of
Sohmer Associates, LLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based public relations & marketing
communications boutique agency catering to leading audio, video, and wireless brands.
Even longer than his career is his obsession with music and movies, and the gear used to
bring them to life. 
Find him on
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

I’ll be honest with you: This was not an easy review to write. As a devotee of all things Terry Gilliam, I burned through multiple drafts that had me sounding like a drooling fanboy rather than a calm, introspective observer and commentator presenting a review of one of the most anticipated films of this or any century.

 

See? That’s what I’m talking about. I went into my initial screening of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with way too many expectations and background baggage to simply sit back and enjoy the film. Instead, it took no fewer than three viewings—and four drafts of this review—for me to appreciate and process Gilliam’s latest film without adding footnotes based on the long and harrowing story of a movie that materialized nearly 30 years after the director first went to work on a project that would become a textbook example of industry limbo.

 

Based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Gilliam’s vision of the classic story is updated and twisted around without losing the plot . . . most of the time. In 1998, Gilliam secured the funding to make the film as he saw fit, with Johnny Depp starring as marketing executive (later film director) Toby Grummett and Jean Rochefort as Quixote. Though production commenced full swing in 2000, the series of early challenges that are laid bare in the documentary Lost in La Mancha were matched only by an equally disastrous series of setbacks that continued through early 2017, when production on the final version was announced.

 

Along the way, Gilliam directed no fewer than four full-length features (The Brothers Grimm, Tideland, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and The Zero Theorem) and two shorts (The Legend of Hallowdega and The Wholly Family). Not too shabby for an artist who still had his sights and heart set on bringing Quixote to completion.

 

It’s no wonder, then, that he begins the film with a title card that proudly states: “And now, after more than 25 years in the making . . . and unmaking . . . a Terry Gilliam film.”

 

And it is indeed a Terry Gilliam film, with all the spectacle that comes with such a description, not to mention the darkness, humor, and general sense of foreboding that are his trademarks, ever since he showed in Time Bandits how easily fairly tales

can take unexpected and troubling turns without the promise of a happy ending.

 

Featuring Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce taking over for Depp and Rochefort— let alone assorted other come-and-goers including Robert Duvall and Michael Palin—the film was ultimately, sort of let loose in May 2018 despite financier-producer Paulo Branco’s best efforts to

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

prevent its release. That was also the month Amazon Studios backed out of a deal to distribute Quixote in the U.S.

 

Jumping to the present, Quixote made few appearances in U.S. theaters but is now resting comfortably on Blu-ray and Amazon Prime Video. Not exactly the big-screen experience the typical Gilliam film deserves, but unlike his earliest solo efforts, especially Brazil, Quixote translates well to smaller screens. There is visual payback when viewing it on a big screen, yet the story and images are compelling on any reasonably-sized display.

 

Despite the well-publicized departures of the film’s former stars, Driver and Pryce are custom-tailored to their respective roles. Pryce’s depiction of Javier, a Spanish cobbler enlisted to appear in Grummett’s student production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, is nothing short of sublime. We watch Javier move from being a shy hermit to a hero, at least in his own mind, as he gets to portray Quixote.

 

While in Spain years later to direct a TV commercial, Grummett discovers a copy of his old student flick, and sets out to the village where it was filmed. And, surprise, that’s where he encounters Javier, who not only still believes he is the real Quixote but that Grummett is Sancho Panza. Out of a sense of guilt for the man’s current state of mind combined with equal parts boredom with his current project and a sense of adventure, Grummett joins Javier on a journey that takes the two of them through encounters with the authorities, and a confrontation with a local who believes Grummett is responsible for his daughter leaving home to become an actress, only to find herself years later working as an escort.

 

As in many of Gilliam’s signature films, fantastical plot lines and troubling twists are held together with a sense of empathy for lead characters who are at once imperfect and wholly agreeable, in that order. Driver appears to revel in playing an over-the-top narcissist whose conscience drives him along on an adventure that is antithetical to anything Grummett, now a successful, lascivious director, ever had on his bucket list. He yells, he laughs, he even belts out the Eddie Cantor classic, “If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie),” complete with a dance routine.

 

Similar to some of Gilliam’s other 21st-century productions, especially The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Quixote revels in engrossing characters as the plot occasionally derails and characters lose some of their charm over the course of the film. Yet the life-or-death battles in the third act will reward viewers who stick with the flick until the end.

 

Gilliam is known for creating large, lavish sets with extensive use of otherworldly special effects to build upon otherwise familiar settings. (Think of his Vegas-on-LSD sequences in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) Though set in the modern era, many of Quixote’s more harrowing scenes convey a sense of imminent danger, even though there are no outward signs of its arrival until well into the denouement.

 

Considering the director’s talents as a visual storyteller who first gained worldwide fame as Monty Python’s resident animator, the settings are presented as boldly and as colorfully as the terrain allows, with imagery that pops off the screen. The soundtrack is more subdued, with a subtle mix that serves the purpose without calling attention to itself. 

 

In retrospect, it makes sense that Quixote received high praise at the Cannes Film Festival only to drizzle into limited availability in the streaming world, with barely a beep’s worth of promotion by Amazon. However, I disagree with Gilliam’s reference to “unmaking” in the title card. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a cinematic triumph by any standard, and a worthwhile investment of two hours for fans of adventure and comedy that will leave the viewer on edge. It’s what Terry Gilliam does best.

Adam Sohmer

Longtime consumer and professional technology specialist Adam Sohmer is president
and
owner of
Sohmer Associates, LLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based public relations & marketing
communications boutique agency catering to leading audio, video, and wireless brands.
Even longer than his career is his obsession with music and movies, and the gear used to
bring them to life. 
Find him on
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The Two Popes

The Two Popes

Despite its occasionally lavish cinematography and stellar supporting cast, The Two Popes is first and foremost a dialogue-driven drama that is not overly dramatic.

 

It’s an impressive feat, considering how the scandals that ultimately drove Pope Benedict XVI to even consider becoming the first pontiff in 598 years to resign continue to make national news. His explanation of “lack of strength of mind and body” combined with the continuing stream of allegations of pedophilia committed by clergy and hidden by the church were widely

seen as contributing to his decision.

 

As portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, Pope Benedict is a frail old man dead-set in his belief that followers must adhere to a strictly conservative doctrine, whereas Pope Francis, his ultimate successor, who is brilliantly played by Jonathan Pryce, is a reformer open to changes in both practice and perception of a pontiff’s day-to-day responsibilities and role on the international stage.

 

Without giving away the crux of the content, it’s widely known that as he eventually moved closer to retirement, Pope Benedict XVI summoned Cardinal Jorge Mario 

Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis) to meet with him at his summer home in the Lazio region of Italy. Bergoglio, who himself was considering a move away from his position as cardinal of Buenos Aires, spent many hours with the pope discussing their respective pasts and paths, views on a changing world, and of course modern-day news stories about indiscretions in the church.

 

These conversations are at the heart of The Two Popes. More riveting than any action sequence I’ve seen over the past year, their meetings slowly build in intensity as the two men come to terms with their beliefs, differences, histories, and plans to move on from their individual roles. 

 

The Two Popes is a singularly focused film where, as in My Dinner with Andre and Killing Them Softly, backgrounds and supporting actors play a (very) distant second to the two leads’ conversations.

As a test to see if my first impressions held firm, I listened to the soundtrack while riding the subway on route to a meeting. Sure enough, the dialogue kept a grip on my interest, even as I travelled with a sea of commuters during the Brooklyn-to-Manhattan morning rush.

 

That said, The Two Popes is no slouch as a visual 

The Two Popes

treat. From breathtaking scenes of the pontiff’s summer retreat in Lazio to modern-day footage of the Vatican and city of Rome, viewers with reasonably substantial 4K displays will be drawn in by the intense beauty of the region. The visuals alone would serve as an effective promotion that could easily have been sponsored by The Italian National Tourist Board.

 

Written by Anthony McCarten and directed by Fernando Meirelles, The Two Popes is more than anything an enduring vehicle for its two stars—in particular, Jonathan Pryce, who instills a believable vulnerability into his portrayal of Pope Francis. Sensitive, modest, and filled with self-doubt that teeters on self-loathing, Pryce’s pontiff is as human as his most humble followers, especially when recounting disturbing episodes from his past. Meirelles deftly switches to flashbacks that convey an old-movie sensibility in terms of both noirish presentation and the overall sense of morality in the scene.

 

Sonically, The Two Popes lets the story do the talking, with a subtle mix that made me feel as if I was sitting with the two men. Effects are sparingly placed in the surround channels, but, as I learned from my experience simply listening to the film while otherwise in motion, The Two Popes doesn’t require a modern-day surround system. On the contrary, the direct, emotionally honest simplicity of the story would likely be just as enjoyable if viewed only with the aid a budget soundbar. The noise of the crowd, calming sounds of nature, and raucous crowds are all aided by a high-end home theater, but they aren’t reliant upon it. The dialogue is the true star of this film, and it is what pulled me back for multiple viewings over several weeks.

 

Adam Sohmer

Longtime consumer and professional technology specialist Adam Sohmer is president
and
owner of
Sohmer Associates, LLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based public relations & marketing
communications boutique agency catering to leading audio, video, and wireless brands.
Even longer than his career is his obsession with music and movies, and the gear used to
bring them to life. 
Find him on
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Review: American Factory

American Factory

It’s impossible to walk away from American Factory without feeling some type of emotion, whether it’s sympathy for a work force that was robbed of its livelihood only to be given the illusion of fresh, if limited opportunities, or disbelief at how anybody could believe that a Chinese company would somehow adapt to U.S. worker protections—efforts that are often an illusion or downright lie.

 

For me, having come from a pro-union, blue-collar family that had a positive experience with the American labor market in the mid/late 20th century, my first viewing left me a tad angry at the outcome and the workers’ shortsightedness when deciding

upon whether to throw their support behind a union.

 

Note that, as a review of a fly-on-the-wall documentary that covers an important chapter in the lives of rust-belt Americans, my comments may contain a spoiler or two, but nothing that wasn’t covered in the news during and after the Fuyao Glass Industry Group Co. Ltd of the People’s Republic of China bought and renovated a shuttered General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio. As the company’s Fuyaousa.com website explains: “General Motors, Ford, BMW, Honda, Bentley and more all use Fuyao glass in their newly manufactured automobiles.”

 

All true, and when the company first started the process of buying and renovating the plant and hiring approximately 2,000 staff for a facility that had been shuttered for six years, local residents were ecstatic over a chance to return the region to its glory as a haven for U.S.-based manufacturing.

 

Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert were given near-unbelievable access to film the scenario as it unfolded, from the earliest days of site inspections to staffing, 

training, and the inevitable and, at least in the beginning, almost humorous culture clashes that one would expect when blue-collar middle Americans are brought into a corporate culture that is known for formality and respect for authority. According to an article that appeared in the Dayton Daily News last August, Bognar said he and Reichert, “stand by the translations subtitled in the work.”

 

An important note, since it isn’t long before the almost idyllic melding of the cultures gives way to real-life concerns about skimping on safety standards, and the company’s firm stance against unionization. The directors, who also shot the 2009 Academy Award-nominated short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, illustrate throughout the film their talent for letting 

American Factory

the events happen without editorialization, giving it a narrative approach that tells the story as well as any well-made piece of fiction.

 

But this is real life, with both American and Chinese staff providing relatively few off-camera commentaries as the story is allowed to simply play out on screen, with the help of small, handheld 

cameras and lavalier microphones that follow one and all for months and years as the dream of a resuscitated manufacturing environment slowly unravels. The guerilla-style shoot foregoes polemics, leaving the viewer to decide where they stand on a matter that affected thousands of people in the recent past.

 

The Oscar-nominated American Factory is as good a documentary as I’ve seen in recent years, thanks in no small part to the high production values, including a surround mix that is unspectacular in the best possible way. Subtle effects such as factory noises, the crunching of gravel, and kids playing in a backyard remain in the rear, quietly supporting the voices and underlying tension on the screen. Maybe it’s a Netflix thing, but knowing that it would mostly be seen on a small screen supported by soundbars or other low-tech solutions most likely led the filmmakers to go light on the audio mix, though anybody with a 5.1 system will feel as if they are on the factory floor and in the boardrooms.

 

Likewise, video is impeccable, without the excessive grain often associated with this type of documentary. No doubt those anomalies were cleaned up in post-production, a critical element in making this so watchable on a big screen in a small-ish living room. (Apartment dwellers in NY and other big cities know what I mean.) The visual quality ranks with the most polished documentaries of the past 10 years.

 

As the first release by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, American Factory is remarkably unbiased, simply telling the story as it happens without nudging the viewer to fall into any specific camp. The Obamas stated that their production company is designed to “harness the power of storytelling.” Judging by this debut release, they’re poised to become an important contributor to American cinema. From its presentation to its attention to cinematic detail, Higher Ground is well on its way to meeting and ultimately exceeding its goals.

Adam Sohmer

Longtime consumer and professional technology specialist Adam Sohmer is president
and
owner of
Sohmer Associates, LLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based public relations & marketing
communications boutique agency catering to leading audio, video, and wireless brands.
Even longer than his career is his obsession with music and movies, and the gear used to
bring them to life. 
Find him on
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.