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:

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NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)

November 17, 2016

nocturnal-animals Greetings again from the darkness. First rule of Write Club … ABC. Always Bring Conflict. Alright, so I blended famous lines from a couple of movies there, but the point is a good script inevitably has conflict throughout. Director Tom Ford (A Single Man, 2009) adapted the screenplay from Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan”, and while significant conflicts abound, it’s the multiple and vivid contrasts that take this one to the next level.

Director Ford jolts us with one of the most unique and unwelcome opening scenes ever as the credits flash by. A high gloss art gallery is the setting for a combination of video/performance art taking place that could only be appreciated by those with very specific tastes … those who favor obese naked dancing ladies. Extremely obese and absolutely naked. It’s not the last time we as viewers will be uncomfortable, but it is the last time we will chuckle (even if it is awkwardly).

The curator of the art gallery is Susan, played by the always excellent Amy Adams. She lives in a stunning, ultra-contemporary mansion with her picturesque husband played by Armie Hammer. Their relationship is apparently as cold as his business, resulting in an empty relationship and the need to maintain the façade with their friends while quietly selling off assets to buy time. On the day that he leaves on a “business trip”, she receives a package containing a galley of her ex-husband Edward’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) first novel … some interesting reading during her time alone.

A creative story structure has Susan reading the book (dedicated to her) in bed while we “see” what she’s reading/envisioning. The story starts out as just another road trip for a husband (Gyllenhaal in a dual role), wife (Isla Fisher) and their teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber). However, on the desolate back roads of west Texas things get intense – almost unbearably so. The young family is terrorized by a trio of rednecks led by sociopath Ray Marcus (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in what is head and shoulders above anything he’s done to date). What follows is the fear of every man … unable to protect his family, and every woman … being abducted.

Thanks to flashbacks and some simple inferences, we soon realize the novel is corresponding to Susan and Edward’s past relationship, as well as Susan’s current situation. The previously mentioned contrasts really kick into gear. It’s the past versus the present, west Texas tumbleweeds versus the sleek and glamorous art world, Susan’s first artsy husband versus her new ideal one, young Susan versus current Susan, the physical beauty of those in Susan’s world versus the grit and ugliness of the novel, and finally, reality vs what’s not real.

The revenge-thriller portion of the novel makes for fascinating story-telling, and we get drawn in fully once Michael Shannon (playing a west Texas detective) arrives on the screen. Always one to disappear into his role, this may be Mr. Shannon’s best yet. Though he doesn’t have significant screen time, we are mesmerized by him during his scenes. He and Gyllenhaal are terrific together. Also appearing in supporting roles are Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, Jena Malone, and a chilling scene from Laura Linney as Susan’s high society mother.

The two parts of the film play off each other like Brian DePalma against Sergio Leone. Slick against dusty … but of course, there is misery and disappointment and deceit in each. The cinematography (2 time Oscar nominee Seamus McGarvey) and editing (Joan Sobel) are superb and complemented by a spot on score from composer Abel Korzeniowski (a mixture of Bernard Hermann and Basic Instinct). The ending may frustrate some (not me) and though it may not find a huge audience, a loyal fan base is quite likely.

watch the trailer:

 

 


ARRIVAL (2016)

November 12, 2016

arrival Greetings again from the darkness. Our cinematic love affair with aliens goes back decades, and these films typically fall into one of two categories: evil aliens attack earth, or aliens come in peace and humans react poorly. We’ve seen aliens trying to provide us with righteous advice (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951). We’ve connected via a few musical notes (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977) and radio frequencies (Contact, 1997). And we have certainly had our share of surprise and unwanted meetings (Alien, 1979; The Thing, 1982). Leave it to cutting edge director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners, Incendies) to find a new, more head-and-soul approach for the genre.

This high concept project is born from Eric Hiesserer’s screenplay of Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” … a title that makes sense by the end of the movie, but one a bit too blah for a big time production with Oscar hopes. Five time Oscar nominee Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguist and interpreter. There is an interesting and well done sequence at the beginning of the film that provides the back story for her character and the foundation for the final reveal.

A dozen oddly shaped spaceships have docked (mid-air) at various points around the globe. The one in the U.S. is hovering over … no, not Area 51 … Montana of all places. Forest Whitaker plays the military officer charged with assembling the team that will try to communicate with the aliens. He chooses Dr. Banks due to her remarkable track record with languages. She is joined with uber-Science and Math guy, Physicist Ian Donnelly played by Jeremy Renner.

We do see the aliens and their artsy style of communicating (a touch of Rorschach), but this is about so much more than learning a new inner-galactic language. It’s about how the military reacts, how the general populace reacts, how the world leaders work together (or not), and even how the military, intelligence agencies and academia coexist. It’s about smart people working out a plan when the problem isn’t even clear … a between-the-ears head-scratcher.

Mr. Villeneuve utilizes what appear to be flashbacks in helping us better understand Dr. Banks, but the element of time may not be what we typically accept in story-telling. The story, characters, cinematography and score (one of the best matches of music and movie all year thanks to composer Johann Johansson) work together to provide an engaging, nearly hypnotic movie going experience. Plus, I’m fairly certain this is the first alien movie to reference Abbott and Costello and crack a Sheila Easton joke. This is beautiful filmmaking that is also thought-provoking and encouraging of some species self-analysis (our species).

watch the trailer:

 

 


BIG EYES (2014)

December 22, 2014

big eyes Greetings again from the darkness. Based on the true events of artist Margaret Keane and her husband Walter, the latest from director Tim Burton is the closest thing to reality he has produced since his only other biopic, Ed Wood (1994). But fear not, ye fans of the Burton universe, his style and flair remains ever-present with a stunning color palette on this trek through the 1950’s and 60’s.

If you have never heard the story, Margaret Keane is an artist with a unique style that features exaggerated eyes of her subjects, hence the movie title. When she first met Walter, she fell hard for his charm and his exuberance and professed love of her work. What happened next seems impossible to imagine these days, but this was the 1950’s. Walter began to market and sell her paintings as his own … in fact, the real marketing was himself as an artist. The empire of Keane paintings, postcards, posters, etc literally exploded forcing Margaret to paint in silence and solitude while her husband inexplicably took public credit, sighting his defense as no one will buy “lady art”.

That may sound like the description of an “issues” film – one that digs into the male dominance of the pre-women’s movement era, or possibly even a look at artistic integrity or the battle of popular kitsch versus critical acclaim. Instead, this is more of a relationship film and a character study. We witness how Walter (Christoph Waltz) lures Margaret (Amy Adams) into this trap and truly undervalues her as an artist or a person. She is merely a means to his financial and public success. Margaret feels trapped right up to the point where she doesn’t.

There could have been real fun in the exploration of Dick Nolan (played by Danny Huston) from the “San Francisco Examiner” in his role as cheesy journalist contrasted against the socially revered serious art critic John Camady (played by Terence Stamp). Instead, both the relationship aspects of the Keanes and the tabloid battles of the critics come off as a bit lightweight, though right in line with Mr. Waltz’ incessant smirk through most of his lines. Fortunately, the film is filled with subtext … each scene carrying the weight of multiple issues.

Many will enjoy the deliciously evil approach Waltz takes for the role, but I mostly felt sad that a woman as apparently smart as Margaret would fall for this obvious shyster and his over the top self-promotion. Still, her battle for independence and ownership is quite interesting given the times and the hole that was dug. Adams is terrific in the role, and she is one of many actresses who bring their own “big eyes” to the picture (Krysten Ritter and Madeleine Arthur are others).

The film never attempts to answer any social issues or even take on the question of “what is art?”. The lack of a stance doesn’t change the fact that it’s beautiful to look at, and brings to light an incredible true story. The set design and costumes are wonderful, and composer Danny Elfman delivers a complimentary score. For those wondering, neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter (both Burton staples) appears in the film. However, the real Margaret Keane is shown sitting on a park bench while Ms. Adams paints in one scene. So if you are after a good-looking film that doesn’t (on the surface seem to) ruffle many feathers, the battle of the Keanes is one that should satisfy.  If you are willing to dig a little deeper, there is much to discuss afterwards.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy the “truth is stranger than fiction” stories

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the Burton bizarre style

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


HER (2013)

January 11, 2014

her Greetings again from the darkness. Well, critics have been raving about this film so strongly the past few weeks that I almost feel guilty going against the grain. Almost. Where they see a masterpiece with insight into love and self, I see an implausible story bordering on ludicrous.

Writer/director Spike Jonze is an incredibly creative filmmaker. His Adaptation and Being John Malkovich are two movies I can watch repeatedly. I was a fan of his film version of Where The Wild Things Are, but this one just brought me nothing but annoyance, frustration and irritation.

Rather than defend my minority stance, I’ll just admit to not being onboard with this one. I have always believed we should each judge a film by how it touches us … how we connect with it. I was neither touched nor connected.

What I will say is the premise of technology replacing human interaction in the near future is not unthinkable and has already happened for some. But to say that a real relationship … that true love … can not just occur, but become commonplace between people and machines just simply contradicts what I believe comprises true love.

The film is extremely well made and visually beautiful. The acting is superb: Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams are all terrific. Voice acting is spot on including Scarlett Johansson, Brian Cox, Kristen Wiig, and even Spike Jonze. But falling in love with an operating system? Maybe what Osgood Fielding III said at the end of Some Like it Hot is really true … “Nobody’s perfect“.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you would like to see a very sad version of what could happen if technology continues to expand its role in our lives OR cyber-sex with Kristen Wiig is appealing to you

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your love stories to involve two PEOPLE!

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzV6mXIOVl4

 


AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

December 21, 2013

american1 Greetings again from the darkness. Over the years, there have been some very entertaining con artist films, and they range from outright comedy (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) to cheeky (The Sting) to dramatic (The Grifters). My personal favorite is David Mamet’s House of Games, a very quiet and subtle look at the con. The stylistic opposite of Mamet’s gem is the latest from director David O Russell. It’s like comparing Duke Ellington to Donna Summer – both of which are featured on this soundtrack.

For the past few months, I have said that this film’s trailer is one of the best I have ever seen. The energy and visuals were enthralling and have had me anxiously awaiting a chance to see the film. So please understand when I say that american2the movie does not quite match the expectations, it’s not really a criticism … more of a tip of the cap to the marketing efforts. This is one showy, flamboyant, often frenetic wild ride that is also a bit messy and sometimes even clunky.

Hair, clothes, cars, music … the best and worst of the 1970’s … are on full display. Christian Bale sets a new standard for worst (and most elaborate and labor-intensive) comb-over in film history. Bradley Cooper’s perm wins the contest for tightest curls over Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks. Jeremy Renner’s pompadour would make any rockabilly performer envious. And let’s not forget the women. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence provide a steady stream of flowing and floppy locks that would keep any shampoo or blow dryer american3company in business. The soundtrack, usually coordinated to story events, also includes Steely Dan, Jeff Lynne, Elton John and many others.

Director Russell’s most recent films include The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. He is obviously infatuated with odd characters who are slightly off center from society. What better topic than con artists so desperate to be liked that they spend all effort trying to rip off the gullible types? Now mix that trait with the overly ambitious persona of Bradley Cooper’s FBI Agent and the US Attorney played by Alessandro Nivola, and you have a collision of worlds that results in a fictionalized account of the ABSCAM events of the late 70’s and early 80’s. I say fictionalized because the film starts with a banner that states “Some of this actually happened”. What did or what didn’t really doesn’t matter here.

Who is playing whom? What is real and what is part of the con? Those are the questions that we as viewers ask, and oddly enough, these are the same questions the key characters ask. If they can’t tell, we certainly have little chance.

american4 This one is all about the characters. Mr. Bale (40 lbs heavier) bears no resemblance to Batman, or even Bruce Wayne. He embodies the falsely confident con man. Cooper is a bit over-hyped in his role, while Adams is at her best in a role that is the film’s most diverse. The real explosion comes every time Jennifer Lawrence is on screen. Not only do things blow up in her kitchen, but she jolts the film in each of her scenes. Some may be tired of Ms. Lawrence’s recent success, but as a film lover, I put her screen presence very near that of Marilyn Monroe. She grabs our attention and squeezes like a vise. That’s talent that very few possess.

Supporting work that should be noted includes Louis CK as Cooper’s reluctant supervisor, Michael Pena as a fake sheik (can they do that?), Jack Huston and Shea Whigham (both from “Boardwalk Empire“), and the great and rarely seen Anthony Zerbe (one of the all time TV villains). There is also a high profile cameo that seems right in line with Russell’s adoration of Scorcese’s Goodfellas.

If you are looking for a film to analyze and dissect, you will be most disappointed in this one. If you are looking for a fun, wildly visual and very entertaining retro film, this one should fit the bill. Just keep your hand on your wallet and don’t be one of the suckers.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are up for a wildly entertaining movie OR you want to see some of the craziest hairstyles packed into a single movie

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: scary hairstyles, bizarre characters and exemplary acting aren’t enough to distract you from an inconsistent script

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ST7a1aK_lG0


MAN OF STEEL (2013)

June 19, 2013

MOS1 Greetings again from the darkness. 75 years ago, the first Superman comic book was published. It would be quite challenging to find very many kids who have not imagined themselves as Superman at some point during that time. Numerous Superman re-boots have occurred in various media: comics, TV, movies, video games, toys, etc.; and the bigger the fan, the more etched in mind what the Man of Steel should look and act like. Woe to the filmmaker who doesn’t share that fan’s vision.

Enter director Zack Snyder, writer David S Goyer, and writer/producer Christopher Nolan. This cinematic triumvirate has been responsible for such comic based movie material as The Dark Knight franchise, 300, Watchmen, and Blade. Some of the criticisms of this most recent Superman presentation include a lack of fun, the absence of humor, no love story, too much backstory, an overabundance of action and CGI, and a hero that is much too MOS2serious … and that’s a list ignoring the outcry over the redesigned suit sans red briefs! As with anything, the closer to the heart, the less amenable to change folks become. At least no one is complaining about the lack of phone booths!

This movie has quite the balance of visual effects and backstory. It’s clearly designed to be the first in a series, and because of that, we get the foundation of Superman: the rare natural born baby on the planet Krypton – a planet speeding towards destruction. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) executes his plan to save his newborn son Kal-El by rocketing him off to Earth. While that’s happening, General Zod (a raging, wide-eyed Michael Shannon) stages one of the most ill-timed coups ever … he tries to seize control of the dying planet. This opening sequence is filled with some of the biggest, loudest effects MOS3of the whole movie. It’s a jolting start that I wasn’t particularly fond of, but it’s obviously well done and with purpose.

Kal-El lands on earth and becomes known as Clark Kent, adopted son of Kansas farmers played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner. Most of Clark’s childhood is glimpsed through flashbacks of specific events, and serves the purpose of giving us a taste, while not delaying the appearance of Superman … though that name is only heard once (maybe twice). In an attempt to hide his powers, Clark becomes a drifter. However, it’s impossible to keep your superhero powers secret when you rescue a group of oil rig workers by walking through fire and using your super strength.

MOS5 Enter “Daily Planet” super-reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). She’s good at her job and easily figures out the big secret. But rather than contact TMZ for a giant pay day, Lois understands that this may be something the world just isn’t ready to learn. Wise lady. The relationship between Lois and Clark is rudely interrupted by the reappearance of General Zod and his right hand lady-warrior (Antje Traue). See, Zod thinks he can takeover Earth and re-establish his Krypton roots … and Superman holds the key to his plan.

If you are a Superman fan, all of this makes perfect sense. If not, I suspect this movie will not hold much interest for you. If you are a fan of the 1978 version with the late, great Christopher Reeve, I would encourage you to keep an open mind. While that version flashed frivolous whimsy, this one is darker and more philosophical … more in line with what you might expect from an alien with super powers. Still, the subtle humor abounds here if you keep your eyes open. LexCorp references appear along with little touches that can bring a smile (12th ranked Kansas Jayhawks football??).

MOS4 The acting is superb throughout. Henry Cavill was the runner-up to Daniel Craig for the James Bond role, but he immediately stakes his claim to the Man of Steel. His overall look and amazing physique leave little doubt that he is Superman, and as a bonus, he is plenty of reason for the ladies to purchase a ticket. Hans Zimmer makes no attempt to one-up John Williams’ iconic score from the 1978 film, yet he makes his mark, especially during the action sequences. Be prepared as this one is heavy on the Sci-Fi angle, and there is also an interesting Jesus comparison that can be made (he is 33 years on Earth).

Doing the right thing has always been the recurring theme for Superman and this movie version helps us understand where the moral fiber was born … the hint is in the Royals shirt Clark wears. In addition to a terrific Smallville set, we get Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, a role which will surely be expanded in the sequel. It’s very interesting to see the Snyder, Goyer, Nolan vision, and if you are still clinging to 1978, you might find yourself asking … Why so serious?

**EDITORIAL NOTE: There has been much movie talk recently about the superhero overload and the over-the-top CGI onslaught.  “Too many explosions“.  “Too many special effects“. “No focus on the story“.  “Enough with the superheroes“.   While I certainly can understand that movie preferences may run 180 degrees from The Avengers, Iron Man, and Man of Steel, my response to these voices is two-fold.  First, movies are considered an art form, but never forget that it’s also a business.  The goal of a business is to turn a profit. When you look at the financial returns of the above mentioned movies, as well as Nolan’s Dark Knight series, one might allow a bit of leeway to Hollywood studios and producers. There are only so many legal ways to earn a half billion dollars, and superhero movies are on the short list.  My second response is to encourage the haters to accept the role of these blockbuster films, while continuing to seek out the more personal and intimate independent films that gain distribution. My personal taste in movies runs the gamut from Iron Man to Mud to Toy Story to the most recent documentaries. I am in awe of the wide variances and multi-talented people involved in movie making.  So while I may avoid the latest Kate Hudson rom-com, I do understand there exists a group of people who are giddy in anticipation.  Rather than expend negative engergy towards the blockbuster explosions, know that the billion dollar box office hit keeps a multitude of artists working.  And that’s a good thing.