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 ~ If Beale Street Could Talk


The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman in Harlem desperately scrambles to prove her fiancé innocent of a crime while carrying their first child.

Stars: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Diego Luna, Ed Skrein, Brian Tyree Henry, Finn Wittrock, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis

Director: Barry Jenkins

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  In 2016, writer/director Barry Jenkins won an Oscar for his adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story Moonlight, telling a unique story about a heretofore underrepresented population of the black community onscreen.  It was a bold, beautiful movie that challenged viewers and our own prejudices not only to skin color but to our perceptions of love and acceptance.  While Jenkins missed out on winning Best Director, Moonlight famously went on to win Best Picture is an Oscar snafu that first saw La La Land announced as the victor only to have Academy officials quickly rush the stage to say presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty read the wrong winner and the small indie Moonlight actually took the prize.

Two years later, we were all waiting with baited breath wondering would the next Jenkins film, If Beale Street Could Talk, capitalize on his momentum and solidify that Moonlight wasn’t just a flash in the pan moment of greatness.  Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, Jenkins has again adapted a work of great beauty that juggles multiple timelines and emotions and creates an utterly transporting experience.  While it couldn’t be more different from Moonlight in subject matter, it captures a similar spirit and builds on that earlier work, bringing audiences deep into the lives of two young lovers and their families dealing with a terrible situation.

Tish (KiKi Layne, Captive State) and Fonny (Stephan James, Selma) have grown up together in Harlem, their childhood friendship blossoming into teenage affection and then into adult love.  When the film opens, Fonny is in prison awaiting trial for a raping a woman and Tish has to tell him that she’s going to have his baby.  Through flashbacks intercut with present day scenes of Tish and her family seeking assistance in clearing Fonny’s name, we see how these two young people got to this place and time and mourn the likely loss of the shared life they’ll never get to begin.  Is the woman accusing Fonny doing so because he’s black?  Or was she instructed to pick him out of a line-up by a cop (Ed Skrein, Deadpool) that had a previous run-in with him?  What about the darkest question of all?  Could Fonny have actually done it?

Even though this is only the second film I’ve seen from Jenkins, I can already see a calling card style to his work. Like director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs), Jenkins favors having his actors staring directly into the camera, which functions as a way of drawing audiences into the action and makes you feel like they are delivering their lines directly to you.  You suddenly become the character being addressed and the effect is unsettling, yet thrilling all the same.  Much of If Beale Street Could Talk are just conversations between ordinary people and the film isn’t afraid to keep things quiet and reflective, like in a scene with Brian Tyree Henry (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) recounting to his old friend Fonny what a black man’s psyche feels like after being in prison.

At the center of the film are the two impressive performances of Layne and James, navigating countless emotions throughout from the nervous excitement of a first coupling to elation in the face of fear at the news of their upcoming child to the desperation and eventual resolute acceptance of a broken legal system.  The work here, especially Layne as the film progresses, is outstanding.  The young actors are strongly supported by Regina King (Jerry Maguire) as Tish’s mother who is mighty and moving in several key scenes without ever resorting to the kind of showboating acting the role could have leaned toward.  For me, it’s not quite the Oscar-winning performance people are claiming it is but King is always such a solid presence I get why she’s at the top of the conversations this year.  I also enjoyed Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq) as Tish’s no-nonsense sister, and Michael Beach (Aquaman) and Aunjanue Ellis (Get on Up) as Fonny’s parents who come calling for but one scene early on in the film and leave a sizable impression in their wake.  Familiar faces Diego Luna (Contraband), Dave Franco (The Disaster Artist), and Finn Wittrock (Unbroken) show up in smaller supporting roles that thankfully don’t get in the way of our leads.

Nicholas Britell’s (The Big Short) brass heavy score is fantastic as is James Laxton’s (Tusk) golden-hued and period specific cinematography, all playing their role in picking you up and placing you exactly where Jenkins wants you to be.  Jenkins has a way with casting even the smallest of roles pitch-perfectly, with no one betraying this is a movie set in 1974 made in 2018.  While Moonlight was more of a film that led to further discussion, If Beale Street Could Talk doesn’t quite have that same “Let’s talk about it” feel to it when the picture ends.  That’s not to say it isn’t highly effective or incredibly moving – it’s a movie made with emotion that you can’t help but be swept away with and that’s largely due to the performances and the way Jenkins brings many elements together to create a true movie-going experience.  One of the best of the year.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ 20th Century Women

20th-century-women-cast-600x600

Synopsis: The story of three women who explore love and freedom in Southern California during the late 1970s.

Release Date: December 25, 2016

Thoughts: If Annette Bening (Girl Most Likely) were to write an autobiography at this point in her career (which is far from it’s expiration date, btw) she might think about titling it “Always an Oscar Bridesmaid” because she’s been runner-up four times now.  Looking over who she’s lost to (Whoopi Goldberg, Hilary Swank {twice!}, Natalie Portman), I feel the right person always won…but it’s gotta be Bening’s time sometime…right?  Her latest bid arrives (with already good buzz for her nomination chances) with 20th Century Women, a 70s set drama about a trio of women and how they affect a young boy growing up in California.  Director Mike Mills guided Christopher Plummer to an Oscar win for Beginners — might he work the same magic for Bening?  Hope so.

The Silver Bullet ~ Everybody Wants Some

everybody_wants_some_ver2

Synopsis: A group of college baseball players navigate their way through the freedoms and responsibilities of unsupervised adulthood.

Release Date:  April 15, 2016

Thoughts: For his follow-up to a career-high achievement with Boyhood, writer/director Richard Linklater has created a “spiritual sequel” to his popular 1993 comedy Dazed and Confused.  Trading D&C’s long hair, bellbottoms, and ‘70s high school setting for the porn staches, tight shorts, and college campus parties of the ‘80s, Linklater has assembled another cast of barely-knowns, several of which are likely wondering who’ll be the next breakout star ala Matthew McConaughey.  Linklater has had this one on his mind for some time and if Boyhood’s miraculous results after its slow gestation is any indication, good things come (Link)later.

Movie Review ~ Her

1

her_ver2
The Facts
:

Synopsis: A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Pratt

Director: Spike Jonze

Rated: R

Running Length: 126 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: At first glance I wasn’t sure what to make of Her.  After all, a Spike Jonze written/directed film starring the unpredictable Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) about a man that falls in love with a computer program could, without question, have gone either way.  Even looking over the rest of the cast from Rooney Mara to Amy Adams to Olivia Wilde and especially Scarlett Johansson, (all actresses I like but don’t love) I couldn’t tell if this would wind up being another awards buzz movie I’d be forced to slog through and defend my overall opinion to hoity-toity critics or a new twist in the romance genre.

It was with a certain delight, then, that I emerged from Her so totally refreshed by its unconventional romance and stimulated by its two unlikely leads.  Too often critics are eager to toss out the term “modern romance” when describing a film that portrays a love story without large flights of fancy but what Jonze has created here is a futuristic romance without a lot of extra bells and whistles or spaceships to Mars.

In the future as imagined by Jonze (and not that far off the mark, I believe) we’re all even more interconnected to the world with our activity on the web downloadable and programmable leaving little to the imagination.  Fashion wise, I’m sorry to say that Jonze (who also had a hand in Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa) believes we’ll all be wearing high waisted wool pants, too…frightening.

Employed to write letters from loved ones that don’t have the time to do it themselves, Phoenix finds just the right words to make his clients and their addressees happy.  In his own personal life, however, he’s not so lucky in love.  Recently divorced and not yet ready to go back on the market he’s intrigued by the latest in tech must-haves…an advanced operating system that’s tailored to cater to him specifically.  After a brief set-up filtered through a typical Jonze-ian questionnaire, Phoenix is introduced to the one woman that will truly change his life…Samantha.

Scarlet Johansson (Don Jon) wasn’t the original actress cast to be the voice of Samantha…that would be Samantha Morton who was on the set every day with Phoenix to film his scenes.  When the film was completed, Jonze discovered that Morton’s voice didn’t fit exactly with the rest of the film and Morton being the pro she was agreed.  Johansson was brought in to redub Morton’s work without ever going through the live on-set emotion Morton and Phoenix shared.

Knowing this, it’s remarkable at how in tune Johansson and Phoenix are in the film and the buzz surrounding Johansson being the first actress to be nominated for an Oscar for voice-only work isn’t that unwarranted.  Her take on Samantha is grounded, curious, playful, and understanding…never resorting to breathy cooing or attempts at seduction…as a computer program, she’s not designed for that…so the eventual feelings she starts to develop for Phoenix are lovely and genuine.

Phoenix too grapples with the knowledge that he’s falling for his operating system.  Knowing that she’ll never be a real person and recognizing that she may be the best thing to ever happen to him he walks a fine line between a fantasy that can never be and the reality of his burgeoning love for her.  It’s a high-wire relationship that Jonze, Phoenix, and Johansson handle with the greatest of care.

Aside from Phoenix, the rest of the cast is filled out primarily with females.  Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Side Effects) plays Phoenix’s ex-wife and their frigid lunch meeting counters nicely with Phoenix’s flashback memories of their loving earlier life together.  Popping up in a brief cameo is Wilde (Rush) as a first date for Phoenix that goes south pretty quickly…I’ll say it again that Hollywood hasn’t yet found the right way to use Wilde.  Though she has less than a quarter of the screen time than she does in American Hustle, Amy Adams has a much greater impact here as a residential acquaintance and former flame of Phoenix that understands his current situation more than he/we think.

Make no mistake, though, that the movie belongs to Phoenix and Johansson.  After a while, I forgot that Samantha was just a voice and we never actually “see” her in the film.  The way that Jonze has filmed the movie and the way that Phoenix and Johansson run with the material make for a classic romance with its peaks and valleys of joy and heartache.

Her easily made my list for Best of 2013.  In a future world perhaps years away from our own when it’s hard to make a live connection with someone, Phoenix finds a love that can never be returned but finds himself thrilled and reenergized.  You’ll thrill right along with him.

Got something you think I should see?
Tweet me, or like me and I shall do my best to oblige!