Movie Review ~ Vice


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The story of Dick Cheney, an unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider, who quietly wielded immense power as Vice President to George W. Bush, reshaping the country and the globe in ways that we still feel today.

Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Allison Pill, Jesse Plemons, Lily Rabe, LisaGay Hamilton, Alison Pill

Director: Adam McKay

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: In 2015, writer-director Adam McKay made the rare successful transition from helming absurd comedies to becoming an Oscar winner for his work on The Big Short.  Whereas he was previously known for college dorm room friendly movies like Anchorman and it’s sequel, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers he was now responsible for a movie that the parents of his fans were buzzing about.  The movie that resulted from The Big Short was a fairly remarkable achievement given how complex the novel by Michael Lewis was and McKay justifiably shouldered much of the plaudits.  With that kind of clout, not to mention the big box office his comedies had already made, McKay was given a wide berth for his next movie and the super-charged political Vice is the result of an artist that has tried to use all of his bag of tricks to much less success.

Charting the rise to power of Dick Cheney from college dropout all the way to the Vice Presidency under George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Vice is a peculiar film that suffers under McKay’s employment of a similar set of structural devices he used in his previous films.  There’s a lot of jumping around in time, numerous lines delivered directly to the audience, and multiple times where the action stops so a familiar face can break down to viewers what exactly is going on or give a greater description to a political term that may be foreign to audiences.  With The Big Short and it’s heavy use of Wall Street lingo, these asides proved helpful but in Vice they feel like a hindrance to the narrative thrust of the piece.  I feel like Americans are much more savvy to politics so it has the effect of being talked down to rather than it being explanatory.

Vice has a lot of ground to cover and even in 132 minutes it rarely dives below the surface to give us a view into the lives of the former VP.  We simply go through the motions seeing Cheney (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight Rises) as a younger (thinner, less bald) man, a bit of a loser until his wife Lynne (Amy Adams, Her) threatens to leave him unless he changes his act.  Entering Washington politics as an intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, Welcome to Marwen) under Nixon and Ford before being ousted by a regime change when Carter was elected President, Cheney had his hand in multiple power plays along the way where he skillfully positioned himself while playing the long game.

The first hour of the film focuses on these early years while the last half is all about the Bush years when Cheney agreed to serve as the Vice President for the son of the former president.  Recognizing him as unqualified and easily manipulated, Cheney seized this opportunity to request more power and responsibility, which Bush handed over to Cheney and his cronies without much incident.  Essentially, Cheney was running the show with Bush the real figurehead that was controlled by his second in command.  With the attacks on 9/11, Cheney saw an opportunity to strike back at enemies and helped set into motion a war many of the issues we still face today generated from.  For anyone that has read a book about this political age in our country, these won’t be revelatory facts but it’s not any less frustrating to see how many of our current problems could have been avoided had the election that put Bush/Cheney into office been criminally investigated as many now agree it should have been.

Much of the hype surrounding Vice has been Bale’s performance as Cheney and I have to say the actor looks and sounds remarkably like the man.  Bale is known to be an actor that dives headfirst into his roles, both mentally and physically and the transformation here is commendable.  Still, this felt like an impression not a performance and nothing I saw on screen revealed to me anything about Cheney from an emotional perspective only from Bale’s impression of the man.  That could easily be a choice since Cheney is notoriously a hard person to pin down but I think there’s something more that could be done apart from the physical alteration he made for the role.

I’m not sure if I had an issue with Adams and her performance as Lynne Cheney or if I just didn’t like Lynne Cheney and that made me respond in kind to what Adams was doing.  In McKay’s eyes, Lynne was a Lady Macbeth for the 20th century, pushing her husband into this life and often encouraging him into his most trying periods of power.  The parallels are further drawn in an admittedly amusing scene where McKay has Lynne and Dick speaking in Shakespearan verse when discussing Dick’s consideration of taking the Vice Presidential nomination.  Adams is always a reliable presence and she and Bale have a good chemistry, perhaps they just were too believable as evil people.

McKay clearly knows how to attract a name cast.  Aside from Carell’s hammy take on Rumsfeld and Rockwell’s good ole boy ease as the younger Bush, there are nice cameos from Jesse Plemons (Game Night) as a fictional character that serves as a narrator who becomes an important piece later in the film and Tyler Perry (Alex Cross) as a morally conflicted Colin Powell.  Allison Pill (Hail, Caesar!) and Lily Rabe (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) have some nice scenes as the Cheney daughters, and a special shout-out to LisaGay Hamilton (Beautiful Boy) for her spot-on Condoleezza Rice.

What’s missing from the movie are the moments between these big political benchmarks.  Skipping around in time (and over the Clinton administration all together) feels like McKay is cherry picking the passages he wants to highlight and that doesn’t feel fair enough in presenting an accurate picture of what was happening in the world that could have influenced Cheney in his later years.  I could easily have seen this being a Netflix series that stretched eight hours and being perfectly content to spend that extra time with these rather morally bankrupt people.  What’s not missing from the movie?  Symbolism.  McKay is a fan of making everything Symbolic with a capital S with many fishing/lures interstitials cut into scenes when Cheney is trying to hook another unsuspecting simp into his power plays.  At first it’s creative, then it becomes cloying.  Let’s also not speak of a dreadful mid-credit scene that Annapurna Pictures should immediately remove from all prints — totally unnecessary and weakens McKay’s argument up until that point.

There was little doubt before the release of Vice that former Vice President Dick Cheney was already considered one of the greatest villains our country but under McKay’s watchful eye he’s now become one of the screen’s most diabolical forces.  Vice is one of the most outwardly liberal movies to come out of a major Hollywood studio and in a way that’s refreshing because there’s no hidden agenda.  I just wish McKay’s message was delivered in a better envelope.

Movie Review ~ Green Book


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.

Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Don Stark, P.J. Byrne, Sebastian Maniscalco

Director: Peter Farrelly

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Sometimes when reviewing a movie it’s hard to wear two hats.  I know that one part of me needs to retain a critical eye and hold a film accountable for its strengths and weaknesses but then there’s also a personal side that speaks to me as that movie-goer who has just come to be entertained.  Green Book represents an odd mix of conflicts in both sectors; it’s not a movie without it’s missteps or passages that work like gangbusters but there’s a undercurrent in the way it guilelessly aims to entertain that, considering its subject matter, didn’t ultimately sit well with me.  It’s a movie I enjoyed but also has me questioning if I shouldn’t be holding it more accountable to be more than it was.

In 1962 New York City, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method) is about to start a layoff from his job at the Copacabana while the famed nightclub undergoes renovation.  Looking for a job to support his wife (Linda Cardellini, Daddy’s Home) and children as the holidays approach, he’s called in by Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, Moonlight) a famed black jazz pianist who needs a driver for his tour of the Deep South.  While Don could easily stay in the North and make a good living playing concerts far from the danger of the Jim Crow South, he chooses to take his trio (there’s two other white men traveling separately) to a place where segregation and racism runs rampant.

Essentially a road-trip movie, screenwriters Nick Vallelonga  (Tony’s son), Brian Hayes Currie , Peter Farrelly (who also directed), fill the film with vignettes that illustrate over and over the differences between how the North and South treated black people.  As expected in this type of formula, tough, street-wise Italian-American Tony and the refined, buttoned-up Don mix like oil and water at first with both men taking time and many miles to adjust to the others way of thinking.  Both contain certain prejudices about the other (not always presented in the way you’d expect) and over the next eight weeks through the Christmas holiday the men will have their eyes opened to seeing more of the world they are living in.

Let’s start with the bad news first, and that is that this 2018 film seems awfully like the kind of movie you’d have seen the ‘90s where racism, segregation, and overall prejudice is seemingly solved in two hours.  Many of the characters onscreen are stock character stereotypes of the people you’d expect to see in a film about the south in the ‘60s.  You have your obvious redneck racists the deeper south Tony and Don travel, you have your affluent members of society that harbor whispered racism behind closed doors, and you have the people like Tony and some members of his extended family who have just never taken the time to get to know any person of color but when they do find out that they aren’t so bad.  Then there’s Tony himself who is the epitome of every Italian goombah you’ve seen, never without a cigarette in his mouth or chowing down on some messy red sauce-d dish.  Everyone is drawn with such exaggerated, bold lines that it’s a credit to the actors who have taken the time to find different ways to shade their roles with characteristics that are more human and less cartoon…though wait until you see Tony fold an entire pizza in half and try to eat it.

The good news here is most of our time is spent with Mortensen and Ali and this absolutely makes the film worth your time.  Though Mortensen is constantly battling with the major constraints of his tough-guy (the accent and the potbelly physicality), he’s never mean-spirited and seems open-minded enough to be able to look within himself when challenged.  Whatever racism he may harbor feels like it was something he was brought up to never question because he hasn’t had exposure to another race and the more time he spends with Don gives him a different perspective.  While I still raise my eyebrows a bit at the speed of Tony’s reconsideration, recognizing that we’re looking at a Hollywood take on a true life story I appreciated that Mortensen at least shows us how he got there.

The most complex role is Ali’s as a pianist bravely venturing into the territory of his enemy as a way to experience something his life in NYC hasn’t afforded him.  Surrounding himself with mostly white culture up until that point, the trip down south is an eye opening experience for Don as well, mostly reconfirming his beliefs of the hatred and injustices that were present (and in some cases still are) in that part of America.  There is more to Don than meets the eye, giving Ali yet another layer of prejudice to play with and he does masterful work here.  There’s talk that Ali will net his second Oscar for the film and with a performance as strong as his, I can see why.  (Though, it must be said he’s absolutely a lead of the film with Mortensen and for him to campaign in Best Supporting Actor is total category fraud).

After spending his career in comedy and turning in work like Dumb and Dumber To and The Three Stooges, director Farrelly takes his first stab at drama and has made a more than serviceable movie.  While the script has some questionable areas to it, it’s a finely made film with all the period elements (costumes, sets, cars, props) all fitting well into the mix.  Though the film was an entertaining watch and I liked the performances of our two lead actors, I do wish it had something more to say about the overall tone of that era.  When the credits rolled it felt like the filmmakers were saying “and they lived happily ever after” and that just rang false to me.