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.

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MOLLY’S GAME (2017)

December 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue is like a rap battle with proper grammar and no down-beat. He must have been abused by pregnant pauses and moments of silence as a kid, as his screen banter gives new meaning to ‘the fast and the furious’. This latest is his directorial debut, but his loquacious diatribes have previously tested our attention spans in such films as STEVE JOBS, MONEYBALL, and of course, THE SOCIAL NETWORK (for which he won an Oscar).

Molly Bloom’s memoir is the adapted source material, and though her story might be a bit challenging to show, there is certainly much to tell … which is right in Mr. Sorkin’s wheelhouse. The verbal sparring amongst characters rarely pauses, and when it does, we have Molly immediately jumping in as narrator and guide.  The ultra-talented Jessica Chastain (ZERO DARK THIRTY) takes on the Molly role, and narrates her back story at break-neck speed (there is a pun in there). We learn her psychologist father (Kevin Costner) pushed her hard as a kid and she became off-the-charts intelligent while also being a world-class downhill skier.

A freak accident ended her athletic career, and after deciding to delay law school, Molly found herself working for a real estate agent in Los Angeles. Soon he got her involved with hosting the high-stakes underground poker games he ran for local celebrities, and being a quick study, she was soon running and managing her own games. When Molly was forced to take her game to New York, the players transformed from movie stars and professional athletes to business magnates, hedge-fund managers and, unbeknownst to her, the Russian mob.

Don’t mistake this for a poker movie. Cards and chips are everywhere, but this is Molly’s story, and Sorkin wisely simplifies the poker details and focuses more on Molly’s brilliant strategy to build her business. Of course, there wouldn’t be much to this were it just rich people playing poker. Less than a decade in, Molly is arrested in an overblown FBI sting featuring 17 armed agents at her pre-dawn door. The charges ranged from money-laundering to hedge-fund fraud to dealings with the Russian mob.

The criminal charges lead Molly into the offices of defense attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who is reticent to take what appears to be an unwinnable case. The Sorkin back-and-forth kicks into full gear as Molly and Jaffey expertly verbally spar until she convinces him that she is adamant in not wanting anyone else to get hurt – even if it might save her proverbial rear-end.

Although Sorkin doesn’t name names, it takes very little research effort to determine some of the featured players in Molly’s games. Hints are provided such as “green screen”, New York Yankee player, and Oscar winner. Michael Cera is identified only as Player X, but it’s quite obvious he is playing the noted green screen actor, and he does a nice job in a small, but vital role. The rest of the cast offers up colorful work: Jeremy Strong as Molly’s first boss, a very funny Chris O’Dowd, Brian d’Arcy as “Bad Brad”, Justin Kirk as a rock star, Angela Gots as the wise table dealer, and the always great Bill Camp as Harlan, whose story highlights the true risk in this supposed game of skill. Graham Greene has a nice moment as the judge hearing Molly’s case, and it’s likely the first time he and Kevin Costner have appeared in the same film since DANCES WITH WOLVES.

At times the film and story bear a slight resemblance to THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, but mostly it’s one woman’s journey through entrepreneurship and a web of legalities. Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is used as a comparable for protecting one’s own name, as well as a life lesson for Jaffey’s young daughter. Writer Sorkin predictably surpasses first time director Sorkin, and never is that more obvious than a cringe-inducing father/daughter scene on a park bench near the end of the film. It’s designed to wrap up Molly’s inspiration and influence, but plays like a cheap Hollywood ploy to mop up loose ends. Molly deserved better, and fortunately most of the movie delivers.

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THE TRIBES OF PALOS VERDES (2017)

November 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Since there is always “trouble in paradise”, perhaps living in paradise shouldn’t even be a life goal. There are certainly less expensive ways to enjoy a nice view than relocating the family from the frozen Midwestern leisure of Michigan to the ultra-rich, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses hypocrisy of Palos Verdes. Joy Nicholson’s 1997 book has been adapted for the screen by writer Karen Croner. Brothers Brendan Malloy and Emmett Malloy co-direct in what appears to be their feature film debut after 15 plus years of music-related videos, shorts and documentaries.

The Masons move into a cliff-side mansion in Palos Verdes. The breathtaking Pacific Ocean view is supposed to offset the homogenized exclusive suburbia punctuated with manicured lawns, freshly painted homes, and close-minded wealthy folks. That works for Phil (Justin Kirk), the cardiologist who does see this as paradise and hopes his family will feel the same. His wife Sandy (Jennifer Garner) is struggling with depression, and their twin 16 year old kids Medina (Maika Monroe) and Jim (Cody Fern) are personality opposites … he being the popular kid, while she is a loner.

Since we all know new curtains don’t fix a broken window, the fractured family is soon on full display. The dysfunction came along as part of their relocation and much of this can be traced to Sandy’s manic-depressive state. The stress-related fallout is ugly. Phil finds comfort in the arms of their Realtor (Alicia Silverstone), who scores a doctor to go along with her commission. This sends Sandy spiraling down the rabbit hole, as Jim starts experimenting with drugs, and Medina seeks peace on a surfboard that she procured through a most unusual negotiation.

Most of the story is told from Medina’s perspective, and Ms. Monroe excels. Her breakout role was a couple of years ago in IT FOLLOWS, and though she’s a bit too old to play a 16 year old, she is so talented and relatable that to whatever extent the movie works for you, it’s likely to be because of her. The way she handles the cold distance between she and her mother is heartbreaking, yet her sadness and frustration at being the only one recognizing the fall of brother Jim is truly devastating.

The ultra-angst is sometimes a bit too heavy, as is the over-use of slow-motion and the overbearing indie music (as you might expect from music video directors). Many will hail Jennifer Garner’s performance since it is so far removed from her usual grinning and lovable type, but I found her a bit too extreme and trying too hard. Despite these issues, the mystic draw of the sea makes perfect sense as Medina literally surfs the choppy waves of life. A threat of disaster is always on the cusp, and the filmmakers take full advantage of the contrasting beautiful setting. Finding our tribe is a key to life and we are privileged to follow along with rising star Maika Monroe’s fabulous performance.

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