VICE (2018)

December 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While it’s happening, we don’t always recognize life in terms of future historical merit. Time passes and perspective becomes possible. It’s at this point when we can reevaluate the actions and results of those involved. One might call this the benefit of hindsight, but philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Filmmaker Adam McKay has moved on from his sophomoric comedies (STEP BROTHERS, ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGANDY) to full bore political satire, first with his “Funny or Die” videos (co-produced with Will Ferrell), then to his searing look at the financial crisis of the mortgage market with THE BIG SHORT (for which he won an Oscar for adapted screenplay), and now to the power dynamics within the Bush-Cheney administration … and how a quiet, unassuming insider became the most powerful man in America.

In one of the biggest casting head-scratchers of all-time, Christian Bale takes on the role of Dick Cheney. We are barely one scene in before all doubts are assuaged, and we are reminded yet again why Mr. Bale is one of the most talented and fascinating actors in cinematic history. With the weight gain, the hair, the growling voice (not unlike Bale’s Batman), the asymmetrical smirk – Bale becomes Cheney on screen and that allows us to focus on the manner in which filmmaker McKay unfolds the events – many of which we remember, even if we were blissfully unaware of the backstory.

Cheney is first seen in 1963 Wyoming as a drunk and somewhat rowdy youngster. The film then bounces the timeline to key events such as Cheney’s time as Donald Rumsfeld’s (Steve Carell) intern/lackey and the 1970’s (Bethesda, his being named youngest White House Chief of Staff, Ford’s loss to Carter, and the campaign for Wyoming Congressman). Cheney’s wife Lynne (played by Amy Adams) is portrayed as more ambitious than her husband (at least early on), and in one searing scene, yanks a young Cheney out of his funk and onto the upwardly mobile track. Were the timing 15 years forward, it’s not difficult to imagine Lynne as the rising political star.

The story really gets interesting once George HW Bush is elected and Cheney is brought back to D.C. as Secretary of Defense. From this point on, his near subversive quest for power is in overdrive. There are many quotes cautioning to ‘beware the quiet man’, and most fit the Cheney on display here. You’ve likely seen in the trailer where a finger-lickin’ George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) chows on barbeque as he offers the VP job to Cheney. Surprisingly, this is one of only two scenes where McKay makes Bush look like a buffoon. If you haven’t figured it out by now, it should be clear that McKay is not one to give the benefit of the doubt here … his mission is to highlight all ludicrous actions of our nation’s leaders during this time.

Supporting work is provided by a deep cast including Lilly Rabe and Allison Pill as the Cheney daughters (Liz and Mary), Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby, Bill Camp as Gerald Ford, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, and Don McManus as David Addington. There is also Bob Stephenson as Rush Limbaugh, cameos from Naomi Watts and Alfred Molina, and Jesse Plemons as the narrator whose true role is held at bay until near the film’s end.

September 11, 2001 brings on a very interesting segment when there is an emergency White House evacuation, and Cheney is whisked into a secure room and appears to overstep his authority … at least that’s how it appears to everyone other than Cheney. He is described as having power “like a ghost”, and it’s this scene and the follow-up discussions about Afghanistan, that McKay believes best exemplifies Cheney’s lust for power, and how ‘right and wrong’ are secondary to him.

Actual clips of Nixon, Reagan, bin Laden, Carter, and Obama are dropped into segments providing a quasi-documentary feel at times. Cheney’s heart issues, the political quandary resulting from his daughter coming out as gay, and the involvement of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and the Koch brothers all play a role here, as does the Unitary Executive Theory and the legal specifics that cause much debate. Also on display is some of the least complementary eyeglass fashion across 3 decades.

Even though his approach leans pretty far left, filmmaker McKay is to be applauded for a most entertaining look at how our government officials can manipulate policy and public statements, and may even stoop to focus groups in better understanding the views of the American people. Editor Hank Corwin (Oscar nominated for THE BIG SHORT) is a big part of maintaining the quick pace of the film, and the use of fishing as a metaphor somehow works.  “America” from WEST SIDE STORY is a fitting song to end the clever, funny and thought-provoking film and our look at the rare politician who amassed power while mostly avoiding the publicity that other politicians seek. Watch at your own risk – depending on your politics.

watch the trailer:


THE FRONT RUNNER (2018)

November 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Jason Reitman has proven himself to be an outstanding filmmaker who delivers entertaining stories with insightful commentary often accompanied by biting humor. His excellent films include: THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, JUNO, UP IN THE AIR, and one of this year’s most underappreciated films, TULLY. His latest is based on the book “All the Truth is Out” by Matt Bai (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Reitman and “House of Cards” Producer Jay Carson), and it tells the story of Colorado Senator Gary Hart and his derailed 1988 campaign for President.

The film begins in 1984 when an idealistic Hart loses the Democrat party nomination to Walter Mondale, who of course, went on to lose the national election to Ronald Reagan. It then picks up as the 1988 campaign is underway and Hart is the party frontrunner, and some say the candidate most likely to win the Presidency. Hugh Jackson plays Hart and is unfortunately burdened with an ill-fitting and distracting wig meant to emulate the lush locks sported by the youthful looking Senator. Vera Famiga plays his wife Lee, and Kaitlyn Dever plays their daughter Andrea. Casting two such fine actresses matters because of what happened during the campaign.

Senator Hart was the favored candidate of the young and the idealistic forces, though the details of his platform were never communicated clearly. Mostly, he was presented as the energetic candidate of hope versus the stodgy Republican Party that had delivered Ronald Reagan for 8 years and was now looking to George Herbert Walker Bush. Everything changed for Hart when rumors of marital infidelity, and possibly even an open marriage, began to circulate. When the media asked him, he was defiant … at times snapping in anger that his personal life was no one’s business.

We are taken inside the campaign via many familiar faces, including campaign manager Bill Dixon played by JK Simmons, and a terrific turn by Molly Ephraim as staffer Irene Kelly. We are invited on board the aptly named party yacht “Monkey Business” when Hart first meets Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), setting off what could considered be the birth of political gossip-columns. The Herald and Washington Post are key players here, as are editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) and iconic journalist Bob Woodward. Apparently this is supposed to show us how politics and the media coverage of politics changed with Gary Hart.

Where the movie lets us down is in not providing any explanation to why Hart was the front runner, whether the U.S. or even the democratic party missed out on a great (or even competent) President, and how in the world Hart was so clueless as to why citizens might have an interest in his personal life activities that included sleeping with a woman (or women) that weren’t his wife. By the way, the reason for the last one is character … and we’ve since learned it’s not as important as what we might have once thought. These are all key issues as to why this is even a story, and whether or not it’s interesting enough to re-tell.

Instead of details, we are bombarded with overlapping dialogue and frenetic editing designed to generate some buzz and energy. The reality is that Gary Hart was really not that interesting, and in fact, by denying the importance of character, he thumbed his nose at his supporters. This blip on American history is simply not enough to justify a 2 hour a movie, and Mr. Jackman never seems able to capture the essence of Hart (whatever that essence might have been). There is obvious relevance to how today’s press treats personal stories, but a bland candidate makes for a bland movie.

watch the trailer:


LITTLE MEN (2016)

August 25, 2016

USA Film Festival 2016

little men Greetings again from the darkness. There is a lot going on in this latest from writer/director Ira Sachs, and every bit of it provides some commentary on the basic everyday life struggles faced by normal folks. There is also a continuation of the ongoing NYC vs Brooklyn “friendly competition”, as well a reminder of the downside of gentrification.

Mr. Sachs and his frequent collaborator and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias kick off the story with Greg Kinnear’s Brian awkwardly exchanging greetings with Paulina Garcia’ s (so terrific in Gloria, 2013) Leonor while the son’s of these two share an equally awkward meeting. Leonor is the long-time tenant in the dress shop located below the apartment where Brian’s recently deceased father resided.

Jake (Theo Tapitz) is an aspiring artist who doesn’t easily make friends. Tony (Michael Barbieri) is a brash, fast-talking kid who is a bit more street wise and outgoing. The two boys quickly bond … while at the same time, the parents begin a quiet battle. Brian’s sister (played by Talia Balsam) demands her fair share of their father’s estate through higher rent on Leonor’s dress shop. It turns out their dad never raised the rent despite the number of years and the developing neighborhood. Kinnear’s wife Kathy (the underrated Jennifer Ehle) tries to play peace-keeping negotiator so that the boys’ friendship is not affected. As is often the case, the kids handle the situation better than the adults.

The film’s best scenes feature the two young boys … a blossoming childhood friendship that is all too rare on the big screen. If the boys weren’t so severely impacted, the adult interactions could almost be white noise. Themes of money vs love, greed vs emotion, as well as recurring and various instances of rejection, all play a part in this multi-faceted story. Examples of rejection include a girl rejecting a boy, Brian’s rejection as an actor, and the multiple rejections in the negotiations for the shop. Mr. Sachs has a real knack for putting real people in real situations that result in difficult decisions.

All of the acting is top notch, including Alfred Molina in a small role as Leonor’s attorney and advisor. But it’s the boys – Tapitz and especially Barbieri – that elevate the film. Watching the boys grow closer despite the all-too-close conflicts reminds a bit of the friendships in Rob Reiner’s classic Stand By Me. Young Mr. Tapitz already has a few short films under his belt as a director, and Mr. Barbieri is certain to get many more opportunities to flash his on screen talent.

watch the trailer:

 


SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2015)

November 19, 2015

secret in their eyes Greetings again from the darkness. Why, Billy Ray, why? It’s not surprising that Hollywood green-lighted the Americanization of the 2010 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, El secreto de sus ojos. That original from Argentina is exemplary filmmaking and a thoroughly entertaining and compelling mystery-thriller; a must-see for any true film lover. Even if an Oscar-studded cast is hired (2 Oscar winners, 8 nominations), the guiding inspiration for a remake should be more than losing the subtitles and filming Julia Roberts without make-up.

The story balances two timelines spanning 13 years. Jess (Ms. Roberts) is an investigator who works with FBI Agent Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Assistant District Attorney Claire (Nicole Kidman), and a blustering District Attorney played by Alfred Molina. When Jess’ daughter is brutally murdered, the investigation is impacted by the suspect’s role as a department snitch. When we catch up all those years later, the unrequited attraction between now former FBI Agent Ray and now DA Claire is as strong as ever; Jess’ appearance is on par with someone suffering from a terminal illness, and the murder still hovers over these characters as if it had occurred last week.

It’s a fascinating story that was handled superbly in the original, yet mostly comes across as uninspired in this latest project. At times, it’s even a bit confusing in how the two eras are handled. The score from Emilio Kauderer and a couple of fine scenes from Ms. Roberts (although she gets no credit here for appearing sans-makeup) are the best parts of this one. Otherwise, Mr. Ejiofor (usually a fine actor) goes over-the-top, while Ms. Kidman is simply miscast and unable to generate the proficiency required for her position. Other support work comes courtesy of Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”), Michael Kelly (“House of Cards”) and Zoe Graham.

Other than lacking the grit and realism of the original, the editing and camera work (so exceptional in the first version) at times come off as amateurish this time around. The soccer/futbol sequence from the original is replaced with Dodgers baseball (Chavez Ravine and Vin Scully) and a link to former Manager Walter Alston. Normally that would be considered an improvement, but again, these fall short and fail to generate the necessary suspense. A weak impersonation of the famous long-tracking shot certainly doesn’t help.

For anyone who hasn’t seen writer/director Juan Jose Campanella’s (an Executive Producer here) excellent original, this version from Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) might prove interesting enough; however, those same folks are strongly encouraged to instead track down the original, and experience the emotional depth and filmmaking expertise that made it such a worthy Oscar winner.

watch the trailer:

 


KAHLIL GIBRAN’S THE PROPHET (2015)

August 19, 2015

prophet Greetings again from the darkness. An animated, artistic, philosophical parable based on a 1923 book from a Lebanese poet … it’s as if the filmmakers went out of their way to make sure most everyone would be turned off by some aspect. Instead, director Roger Allers delivers a beautiful and thoughtful representation of nine of the 26 stories from Kahlil Gibran’s influential best-seller.

The story revolves around Mustafa, an artist and poet who was exiled seven years earlier when his words were deemed harmful to the local regime. Mustafa is informed that he will be granted his freedom to return home, and as he is escorted through town, Mustafa periodically delivers his insightful and inspiring words to the people of the land. These make up the 9 segments (Freedom, Children, Marriage, Work, Love, etc) within the movie, and each of these segments is the unique work of a different renowned artist/director. The artistic style and presentation varies between each segment, and some employ the use of music (Damien Rice, Glen Hansard).

As Mustafa recites the words of Gibran, the individual segments unfold with the artistry of each director. These blend well with the overall story which also features Mustafa’s housekeeper and her young daughter (who initially doesn’t speak). The voice acting is top notch thanks to Liam Neeson (Mustafa), Salma Hayek (the housekeeper), Quvenzhane Wallis (Almitra), John Krasinski (a lovesick guard), Alfred Molina (Sergeant), and Frank Langella (regime leader). Mr. Neeson is especially effective as the soothing voice of Gibran’s words.

This was evidently a pet project of Salma Hayek, who also is Producer of the film. She wisely enlisted director Roger Allers, who has ties to Disney and the hugely popular The Lion King. The film is Disney-esque in its approach, but is certainly not aimed at kids. It’s really a blend of the segmented structure of Fantasia, the adult-themed style of Watership Down, and the philosophical meanderings of Gandhi.

Gibran writes that “all work is noble”, and the work of these filmmakers certainly is. As with any poetry or philosophy, one must be receptive to the message and willing to be inspired. If not, it’s merely “love and flowers”.

watch the trailer:

 


LOVE IS STRANGE (2014)

September 13, 2014

love is strange Greetings again from the darkness. In a remarkable opening 6 to 8 minutes, we see John Lithgow and Alfred Molina prepare for, execute, and celebrate their official marriage after almost 40 years together. During this sequence, we quickly understand that Ben (Lithgow) is the emotional one, and George (Molina) is the pragmatic, balanced one. The brief ceremony is filled with love, admiration and happiness, and leaves us with no doubt that these two are dedicated to each other.

Director Ira Sachs (Married Life, 2007) also co-wrote the script with Mauricio Zacharias, and the film excels while Lithgow and Molina are on screen together. It comes across as a contemporary version of the 1937 Leo McCarey film Make Way For Tomorrow (with Beulah Bondi) and highlights the obstacles faced by an elderly couple who face financial hardships, New York real estate misery, and the not-so-welcome generosity of friends and family.

The gay component is not played up, rather the story is told in straight-forward manner as the couple is forced to live apart, and deals with loneliness and unease as they each feel out of place living in a party house with friends (Molina) and sharing a bunk bed with a typically awkward teenage boy played by Charlie Tahan. The boy’s parents are Marisa Tomei and Darren Burrows, who face their own marriage and parental issues.

The happiness of the opening wedding ceremony quickly dissipates into real life misery for all characters. The only happy people are the grown men playing a Game of Thrones board game. Literally everyone else is unhappy, or at least disinterested.

Although conflict is ever-present, the Catholic Church is the closest to a real villain. John Curran plays a Priest in the terrific scene in which Molina is fired (because of his wedding) from his Catholic School teaching job. The poor town of Poughkeepsie takes a couple of shots as well, but mostly it’s the pent-up frustrations of Tomei, the passive-aggressive approach of a few other characters, and the crazy teenage mood swings of Tahan’s character that keep Ben, George, and we as viewers quite uncomfortable. Instead, the joy comes from the subtle moments courtesy of the two leads. See this one for the performances of Lithgow and Molina, and for the beautiful Chopin piano throughout.

***NOTE: this makes a fine movie, but it’s easy to imagine it as a much more effective live production on stage

watch the trailer:

 

 


RANGO

March 6, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I just can’t believe it. Last year I was raving about Toy Story 3 being my favorite film of the year, and now here I am again extolling the excellence of another animated feature. However, Rango is a different experience … these are all new characters and a whole new look for animation. I would even say this is more a film for grown-ups than for kids, though kids will certainly get a kick out of Rango, a colorful chameleon energetically voiced by Johnny Depp.

 The story and film pay homage to many classic movies and especially to spaghetti westerns. You will easily spot the tributes to Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Hunter S Thompson, Sergio Leone, Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, High Noon, and of course Chinatown. The main story line is nearly identical to Chinatown … the control of a town’s water. Here we get the Mayor, voiced by Ned Beatty, in the John Huston role. For film fans, this is just so much fun!

Rango the chameleon is a very likable character who just wants to make friends. He dreams of being a hero so that people will look up to him. Of course, he learns the hard way what being a hero really means. The town of Dirt, the desert, and multitude of characters are all fantastically drawn. There are times the film has a look of live action with terrific lighting and detail, and the colors are perfect.

 The voice acting in the film is truly outstanding and it starts with Depp’s fine work. Also contributing are Ned Beatty (Mayor), Bill Nighy (Rattlesnake Jake), Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Stephen Root, Alfred Molina (Armadillo), Ray Winstone, Charles Fleisher (from 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) and Timothy Olyphant as the Clint Eastwood character no-named Spirit of the West. There is also a useful and very funny Mariachi band that pops up periodically to push the story along.

Director Gore Verbinski is known best for his Pirates of the Caribbean movies (with Depp) and he really gets to go all out on his visual style here. He is helped immensely by George Lucas‘ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and their first foray into animation. Heads up Pixar … you definitely have some tough competition!

A note of caution: I did notice a lot of younger kids seemed to get bored and had trouble following the story.  There are some terrific action scenes, but there is also a great deal of time spent on the story and characters – not exactly perfect for keeping a kid’s attention.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you love a good western or good animation (this one is both)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have very young kids … there are long dialogue-driven sequences between the few action effects