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Director/writer Peter Landesman
Starring Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Marton Csokas, Ike Barinholtz, Tony Goldwyn, Tom Sizemore, Bruce Greenwood, Michael C. Hall, Brian d'Arcy James, Josh Lucas, Eddie Marsan, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Maika Monroe
We all should remember the Watergate break-in and its connection to the Nixon White House. The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did the expose to discover who was behind it and that led to bringing down Richard Nixon and his White House for multiple nefarious abuses of power.
None of that would have been possible had not FBI agent Mark Felt given secret information to these investigators because he believed that the President had betrayed his country’s trust in order to serve his own interests over those of the United States.
In “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” veteran award-winning actor Liam Neeson assumes Felt’s persona in order to establish with audiences just how deeply Felt resented Nixon’s actions and what it took for him to take the steps he took.
Directed and written by Peter Landesman, this 2017 biographical tale plays out like a spy thriller but is based on the 2006 autobiography of Felt’s, written with John O'Connor. Felt became "Deep Throat" —the Post reporters’ anonymous source — and his revelations and tips pushed forward their investigation which not only led them to the exposing the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s downfall but changed the course of politics in the ‘70s.
Without histrionics or melodrama, Neeson portrays a man who has had a grip on incredible power only to see it disappear once his mentor, the fearsome FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, dies. The film is both a dissection of a thundering historical event and a deft character study of man who understood how the levers of power worked — or didn’t.
Bolstered by an all-star supporting cast of Diane Lane, Tony Goldwyn, and Maika Monroe, this is a smoothly directed, informative film that has been overshadowed by a plethora of films addressing past events which now have a fresh relevance.
Written by Ayad Akhtar; directed by Doug Hughes
Performances through January 7, 2018
Steven Pasquale in Junk (photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Following his Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, a critical self-examination of how Islam’s tenets fit into 21st century culture, and The Invisible Hand, which provocatively demonstrated how Islamic terrorism and today’s money-obsessed world converge, Ayad Akhtar returns with Junk, a sprawling but meticulously structured dramatization of the roots of our current financial predicament.
Set in 1985, Junk centers on Robert Merkin—based on the infamous Michael Milken, jailed for insider trading—wunderkind of the Reagan-era financial world, an L.A.-based whiz kid at the forefront of the new junk bond industry. Planning a hostile takeover of a successful family-owned steel company—his intended target, CEO Thomas Everson, doesn’t stand a chance against Merkin’s updated playbook—Merkin simply doesn’t care how he wins, as long as he wins.
That plot outline is just the tip of the iceberg, as Akhtar and his shrewd director Doug Hughes make Junk a wide-ranging, epically-scaled exploration of what money means in America and how we got to this point. With some two dozen characters and many plot strands intersecting, the play is unafraid to be complicated, even if it’s fairly easy to follow it through the crannies without having any insider Wall Street knowledge. A lively ensemble, John Lee Beatty’s imposing two-tiered set and Ben Stanton’s magisterial lighting contribute to that all-important fluidity.
Akhtar also shows how money infests everything: everyone is dragged down to Merkin’s level, even enterprising journalist Judy Chen (the poised Teresa Avia Lim), who is asked by Merkin’s crooked lawyer Raul Rivera (a perfectly slimy Matthew Saldivar) to junk the manuscript of a tell-all book she’s writing for a pile of hush money, or veteran financier Leo Tresler (a blustery, bellowing Michael Siberry), who sees what junk bonds will end up doing to Wall Street but who realizes he may have to play Merkin’s game himself to survive.
Admittedly, since Akhtar wrote Junk with the benefit of hindsight, there are moments that ring false or obvious. When Merkin (the roguish charming Steven Pasquale) asserts that the Dow might someday hit 15 or 20 thousand, an incredulous Chen retorts, “Yesterday’s close was 1300. The Dow at 20000 sounds absurd,” which is greeted with wink-wink nudge-nudge responses from the audience. And the Giuliani-like D.A. going after Merkin for insider trading, Giuseppi Addesso (a properly Rudy-esque Charlie Semine), says “nobody understands this shit—and nobody cares,” which elicits giggles of approval. Then there’s the entire dramatic arc of Merkin getting his comeuppance, which plays out as one would expect, with little suspense or even schadenfreude.
That said, Akhtar nails the persona of Merkin as a charismatic, unscrupulous “master of the universe”—he even lies to his financial whiz of a wife (a sober Amy Silverman) about a shady character he’s using for suspect trades, Boris Pronsky (a bedraggled Joey Slotnick), who’s eventually his Achilles’ heel. And Merkin is allowed to speak uncomfortable truths about American exceptionalism and how other countries are surpassing us, crystallized in a rousing act two speech that climaxes thus: “Let’s just set aside those lies. Those delusions. And let’s stick with the facts. Fact: They are winning. Fact: We need to understand why. Fact: We need to change. When you stay blind, you can’t change. When you can’t change, you die. And that is what is happening in this country right now.”
Junk ends with a sly zinger about the possible cause of the 2008 mortgage crisis that Akhtar smartly doesn’t telegraph; it’s a deliciously satisfying wrap-up to a bracingly serious play.
Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY
Blu-rays of the Week
My Journey Through French Cinema
Even at a staggering 190 minutes, Bertrand Tavernier’s personal chronicle of what most moved him onscreen since he became besotted with movies in his youth is done so beautifully, so charmingly, so admirably, that you wish it would go on for far longer (the end credits hint at a Part 2, and in the Blu-ray’s 12-minute bonus interview, the director admits he is currently making an eight-hour series follow-up, which I hope finds its way to Netflix or another streaming service).
As always with Tavernier, there are marvelous anecdotes, brilliant insights, treasured observations: when he’s discussing Maurice Jaubert among the greats of ‘30s and ‘40s film composers, Tavernier’s passion comes through so forcefully that you feel his warmth, his embrace, his marvelously attuned personality to all things cinematic. The hi-def transfer is luminous.
Donna Deitch made this low-key 1985 lesbian relationship drama about a Columbia professor who comes to Reno for a quickie divorce only to fall in love with a free-spirited local woman. What gives the film its flavor and staying power are the beautifully modulated portrayals by Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau, who make Deitch’s at times soapy story involving and revelatory.
Criterion’s hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include interviews with Deitch, Shaver and Charbonneau; excerpts from a documentary about Jane Rule, who wrote the 1964 novel Desert of the Heart on which the film was based; a discussion between Deitch and actress Jane Lynch; and Deitch’s audio commentary.
Funeral Parade of Roses
This giddily seductive, bizarre but brilliantly effective work by director Toshiro Matsumoto was supposedly an influence on Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (there’s a sardonic scene of women fighting in slo-mo that predates and anticipates Clockwork).
But this scattershot film uses documentary-style interviews, heinous killings and gritty B&W photography to create an unsettling but very recognizable modern world. There’s a great hi-def transfer; extras include a commentary and a second disc of Matsumoto short films.
In the second—and apparently final—season of the British sci-fi series about a present-day world populated by synths (robots which have become indispensable to humans’ everyday lives), some of the synths are starting to have feelings and emotions.
The show seems to run in place after introducing tantalizing concepts, but its variations on a theme are done convincingly enough to keep our attention. There’s a stellar hi-def transfer; extras comprise brief featurettes.
In Pursuit of Silence
In Patrick Shen’s often mesmerizing documentary, the concept of silence in an increasingly noisy world is explored, even everyday decibel readings in cities like New York contributing to sickness and a less than optimum life expectancy.
Gorgeous to look at—in lingering shots of soundless landscapes, silence speaks volumes—and featuring Alex Lu’s complementary score, Shen’s filmic meditation is a cautionary tale and cri de coeur. The visuals look spectacular on Blu; extras include deleted scenes, extended scenes and a Lu interview.
The Limehouse Golem
In Juan Carlos Medina’s stylish Jack the Ripper rip-off, Bill Nighy is a police inspector in Victorian London tasked with solving the case of a serial killer who is terrifying the locals while trying to save a young woman, accused of poisoning her husband, from the gallows.
The movie moves swiftly and surely, even if its obvious denouement treats its twists like it’s some kind of shocking revelation. There’s a superb hi-def transfer; extras include several short featurettes.
DVDs of the Week
Reiner Holzemer’s impressive behind-the-scenes documentary chronicles fashion designer Dries van Noten, a Belgian among the most notable of his generation.
Following Dries while he designs his brand-new collections allows viewers to ponder his style and influence alongside many talking heads, set to a soundtrack by Radiohead’s Johnnie Greenwood that’s much less a pastiche of Krzysztof Penderecki’s dissonant music than usual.
Eight Films by Jean Rouch
French ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch made several seminal films over the course of his long, storied career, and this invaluable collection collects eight of them, including several of the masterly full-length films that broke the boundaries of non-fiction ethnography and narrative fiction, such as The Human Pyramid (1961), The Lion Hunters (1965) and Little by Little (1969).
Also included is an hour-long documentary, Jean Rouch, The Adventurous Filmmaker, by director Laurent Védrine, which takes the measure of the artist and his vast influence.
From the Land of the Moon
In Nicole Garcia’s tragic romance, Marion Cotillard gives her usual committed performance as a mentally ill French woman who is married off to a solid, salt of the earth type but finds true love with an exuberantly “different” man she meets while in a sanitarium.
It might be too much in its exploration of physical and mental intensity—how about a drinking game whenever Cotillard’s eyes well with tears?—but there’s no denying the artistry contained in this old-fashioned downer. The lone extra is a 25-minute making-of featurette.
The great Polish director Andrzej Wajda's last film—completed before his death last year at age 90—is not up to hi many masterpieces, but it is an impassioned and probing study of Polish modernist painter Władysław Strzemiński. Bogusław Linda gives a bravura performance, and if Wajda dips into melodrama at times, his film is still a worthy epitaph.
It looks superb on Blu-ray, there’s a film professor Stuart Liebman commentary, and there’s Wajda on Wajda, an in-depth interview before the master’s death in which he discusses his best and most important films, from his 1955 debut A Generation to his remarkably fertile final decade. Most impressive is that many clips from his classics are in HD, boding well for future releases.
Charlize Theron is in rare form as a secret agent who kicks ass and takes names without a cape or anything resembling superhero paraphernalia in this loud, overlong but enjoyable action flick set in Cold War Berlin.
The story makes absolutely no sense, but Theron is having so much fun as the sleek, sexy and extraordinarily lethal assassin that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have a few sequels. The film looks splendid on Blu-ray; extras include director David Leitch commentary, deleted and extended scenes, and several featurettes.
This weirdly wacky 1973 thriller—part of the ‘70s Blaxploitation movement—concerns a young man who, after being hypnotized, is invaded by the spirit of a killer who murdered his girlfriend decades earlier.
The energy of the cast overcomes the absolute insanity (not to mention inanity) of the script, making this the very definition of “guilty pleasure” for those so inclined. There’s a decent hi-def transfer; extras include The Killing Floor, a retrospective featurette on the film with interviews; and an audio interview with actor David McKnight.
Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait
Director Pappi Corsicato presents one of the contemporary art world’s biggest names, in all his personal and professional glory, by interviewing wives, daughters, friends, colleagues and admirers (among them Al Pacino and Willem Dafoe), along with the man himself.
Corsicato makes canny use of Schnabel’s own archive of home movies and photos, along with footage of his most recent works. But by saving Schnabel’s greatest achievement—his 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, for which he received a Best Director Oscar nomination—for last, Corsicato shows his subject’s artistic seriousness matches his self-promotion. The hi-def transfer is excellent.
(Film Movement Classics)
In the 1950s, a youthful and glamorous Romy Schneider played Austrian Princess Elisabeth (“Sissi”) in a series of colorful if dramatically cardboard films that got by on their leading lady’s star quality: Sissi (1955), Sissi: The Young Empress (1956), and Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957), as well as 1954’s Victoria in Dover, in which Schneider played Queen Victoria as a young princess.
Along with these four films in both their original 1.33:1 ratio and widescreen versions on four Blu-ray discs, the set also contains a DVD with the English-dubbed Forever My Love, a condensed version of the Sissi films, and two featurettes.
Summer of ’42
1971’s Summer of ’42 was one of the most beloved movies of its time, not least because of Michel Legrand’s sentimental piano theme, which matches this teary but affecting look at the end of innocence, with winsomely beautiful Jennifer O’Neill the perfect fantasy woman for the horny but confused teen played by Gary Grimes.
Co-winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow is a bumpy road movie that chronicles the lasting friendship between two drifters—on the plus side, this scattershot character study has powerhouse performances by Gene Hackman and Al Pacino. Both films have solid hi-def transfers; Scarecrow’s lone extra is a making-of featurette.
Ivan I. Tverdovsky’s bizarre drama is an allegory, a fable, a cautionary tale: but of what? A middle-aged zoo functionary sprouts a fleshy tail which only accentuates her distance from everybody—from relentlessly mocking co-workers to an overbearing, religious mother—except, improbably, the handsome young radiologist who took X-rays of her new growth.
Natalya Pavlenkova’s emotionally naked portrayal of the heroine is the main reason to see Tverdovsky’s film, which stumbles as it attempts to be simultaneously realistic and fantastical. It looks great on Blu; extras are interviews with actor Dmitry Groshev and Tverdovsky enthusiast Peter Hames.
DVDs of the WeekIndiscretion
Mira Sorvino—where has she been?—shines as the wife of a New Orleans politician with a nubile teenage daughter who has a short affair with a sexy sculptor, only to be at the mercy of his crazed wrath when she breaks it off.
This latest variation of Fatal Attraction reverses genders and tosses in the daughter falling for the heartsick maniac for good measure; but Sorvino acts the hell out of it, even during the last reels’ risible reversals and reveals while the entire movie goes off the rails. The lone extra is an audio commentary.
Writer-director Shimon Dotan’s potent examination of Jewish settlements doesn’t pretend to be the most scrupulously evenhanded documentary, but it does provide necessary historical and political context for this seemingly untenable but at the same time unfixable situation.
Interviews with Israelis who’ve chosen to live there—including some who are virulently anti-Palestinian—are balanced by glimpses of Palestinians whose own existence has been upset by the encroaching settlements.
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