Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Dick Flick: “Vice” is a Darkly Comic Portrait of Power

Wikipedia defines the word “vice” as “a practice, behavior, or habit generally considered immoral, sinful, criminal, rude, taboo, depraved, or degrading in the associated society.” No wonder the movie “Vice” is about vice-president Dick Cheney. Following the flashy and fun style of “The Big Short” but without all the terminology and convoluted plot that was so confusing to us general folks. Christian Bale transforms himself, yet again, this time to play Cheney as the slimy, power-hungry creep he was. “Vice” doesn’t use humor quite as much as “The Big Short” but it has some truly interesting things to say about modern politics. It may not be the sort of entertainment many of us want in these politically charged times but it’s another cleverly directed dramedy with fine performances and something to say about the state of the world we’re currently living in. Conservatives need not apply.

Let’s get this out of the way first, anyone who thought George W. Bush was a good president is not going to find much to like about “Vice.” It’s a scathing critique of him and his administration. And yet it doesn’t necessarily portray Bush and his team as complete morons… at least not too much. It’s obvious writer/director Adam McKay is making a strong political statement and there’s no dancing around that. Bush is played by recent Oscar winner Sam Rockwell and the actor does a good impression and makes a good job in the limited role. An entire film lambasting George W. is almost too easy. And you can watch Oliver Stone’s “W.” for that. Here, we witness the political rise of one of the most mysterious and least liked politicians in American history. On the flipside he was also one of the most powerful American vice-presidents, a role he himself thought of as meaningless and pointless. The film purports that the former politician and businessman sought an opportunity to be the most powerful vice president for a man who sought the presidency to please his father and not because he actually wanted the job.

McKay employs some really fun cinematic techniques which makes “Vice” more than just your standard biopic. For instance, when Cheney ends his bid for the presidency in the early 90s (mostly because his daughter Mary came out as a lesbian) the film suggests the story of the Cheney’s is over. The credits begin to roll until the film’s narrator (Jesse Plemons appearing onscreen as a blue-collar worker named Kurt) interrupts and says that’s not where things end at all. There’s even a sequence in which Dick and his wife Lynne (Amy Adams, really strong here) perform Shakespearean dialogue as they retire to bed. But as a straightforward biopic, Cheney’s story is still pretty interesting actually considering he had a lesbian daughter (played by Allison Pill) and accidentally shot a friend in the face with a shot gun during a quail hunt.

The main takeaways from “Vice” is what so many people assumed all those years ago when George W. Bush was president: that Dick Cheney was really running the show. It’s true though. Certainly your political beliefs will certainly help you decide whether “Vice” is the type of movie you find appealing but you can’t help the innovative style of McKay’s script and direction. Sure he borrows a lot of what worked in “The Big Short” but I found “Vice” way more engrossing of the two. In the end the film isn’t afraid to portray the main character as exactly what he is: a dick.  GRADE: B+ 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Not Another Queen Movie: The Darkly Comic “The Favourite” is a Crowning Achievement

I’m just as shocked as you are: I adored “The Favourite.” This is a period costume drama for people who don’t like period costume dramas. Though I’m sure if you do like costume dramas it just might be one of your, ahem, favorites of the year. Taking a cue from the likes of “Barry Lyndon” and “Amadeus,” and set during the early 1700s, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ irreverent and stunning black comedy “The Favourite” gives us a peek at the eccentric Queen Anne and her relationship with two cousins fighting to be her court favorite. It’s essentially a lavish costume drama cat fight but it’s oh so much more. Featuring a trio of spectacular leading ladies, lush cinematography, and a storyline that is as unpredictable as it is fascinating, This film is every bit as bizarre and charming as you’ve heard. It’s an odd and royal delight.

Not everyone is going to love “The Favourite.” It’s certainly an unusual film and that’s because Lanthimos is an unusual director. His most well known film is about Colin Farrell turning into a lobster. A few lobsters make an appearance in this film because apparently Queen Anne was a truly bizarre monarch. How much of “The Favourite” is historically accurate? I don’t know but this certainly is loosely based on the real life royal.

Portrayed by a commanding Olivia Colman, the Queen is an eccentric middle-aged woman constantly riddled with disease and pain. So much so that she leaves the important work to her main confidant Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (an equally good Rachel Weisz). Sarah’s hapless cousin Abigail (Emma Stone in one of her strongest performances) comes to court in hopes of getting work. But due to a string of events and circumstances Abigail soon finds herself in with the Queen’s good graces and soon it drives a wedge between Anne and Sarah setting off a cat fight of royal proportions. 

There is also lot of political business concurring in the form of an unfavorable war with France and a scheming member of Parliament played by Nicholas Hoult who tries to use Abligail for political gain. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script can get a bit complex in that regard and if you’re not a student of British history it all may be a bit confusing but it’s not hard to get the general essence of what’s happening. The film is certainly its strongest when it’s focusing on the dynamic of the three leads, the balance of power between them, and perfectly timed dark humor.

Lanthimos brings an outlandishness to the film that makes it unlike most films of this genre. Most period pieces detailing the lives of monarchs are stuffy and feel like a history lesson. “The Favourite” is anything but stuffy. An intriguing plot development early in the film sets the stage for what becomes a an almost suspenseful tale of ladies gone mad. Colman is mesmerizing as a crazy cat lady version of a royal monarch. Stone and Weisz play so nicely off each other and each create full realized characters. Most of the time in films set in this time period everyone looks and sounds the same but here each lady is unique and spellbinding. Besides the brilliant technical production – the costumes, sets, and makeup – Robbie Ryan’s camerawork is as magnetic as the performances with stunning uses of fish-eye lenses, wide lenses, and even scenes lit with fire and candlelight. 

Finding a perfect balance of drama and humor, and an interesting take on politics, power, and excess, “The Favourite” is certainly one of this eclectic year’s most eccentric yet accessible films. And with three brilliant and dynamic performances from its outstanding leads, it's thrice as good as your typical stuffy costume drama.  GRADE: A

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Captain Larval: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a Funny and Bold New Take on a Legend

There’s something about Spider-Man. Ever since the popular comic book character first hit the big screen in 2002 it’s hard not to be obsessed. And just when you think you’ve almost seen enough of the character we’re given another completely gratifying and unique take that is truly unlike anything we’ve been given before. I’ve enjoyed every Spider-Man reboot and redo that’s been out there: everything from the “Amazing” version, to the fantastic MCU version, the Raimi versions - hey evenSpider-Man 3is watchable if horrible. There’s something strangely appealing about this web-shooting, wise-cracking hero that feels universal and relatable. Enter “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” the first animated theatrical film staring the popular wall-crawler. It’s a completely fresh and absolutely hilarious take on the character and everything you thought you new about the friendly neighborhood hero. Featuring innovative animation, a truly clever story, and interesting new characters and interesting takes on old characters, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a must-see for anyone who loves Spider-Man or is a human being.

To be honest the look of this Spider-Verse was jarring a bit. The fast-paced action, comic book-like computer animation, and almost stop-motion looking character movements were almost so new I wasn’t sure if my eyes were enjoying it as much as my brain. But as the film progressed and I settled into this new cinematic take on feature animation I really began to dig it. We’re introduced to a teenage Bronx boy named Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) who’s your average city teen except he’s a person of color which feels delightfully refreshing in this genre. His story may seem familiar: one day he’s bitten by a radioactive spider and then he begins to experience bizarre powers that are reminiscent of a spider. But that’s not possible right? Because in Miles’ world there already is a Spider-Man named Peter Parker who spends most of his time heroically saving the lives of the citizens of New York City.

In this world Miles quickly learns that there are many Spider-Men in fact. After a portal to another dimension is opened up due to the mischievous work of the evil crime lord Kingpin (Liev Schrieber), a whole handful of different versions of the web-slinging hero are transported to Miles’ reality. There’s a pig version, a black and white version, an anime version, Gwen Stacy as Spider-Gwen, and even an older, disheveled version of Spider-Man. The the unlikely meeting of this spider-powered group band together to defeat the Kingpin and restore the time continuum so that they can all return to their respective universes.

It all sounds so convoluted and preposterous but that’s the magic of animation and a top-notch script from screenwriters Phil Lord (“The LEGO Movie”) and Rodney Rothman. A story like this would never fly in live action but in cartoon form, mixed with a perfect dose of clever comedy, in-jokes, and meta humor it all works perfectly well. This movie exists in a world where Spider-Man comics exist and Spider-Man movies exists; the movie knows you’ve seen and read countless iterations of the character and it plays with that. And if you aren’t that familiar with the character (WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU??) the film probably still works because most of us, myself included, is unfamiliar with the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man anyway.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is an altogether engaging and cinematic animated masterpiece. The film truly has stuff for everyone; long-time fans will be just as blown-away as the newcomers. Besides, at this point who hasn’t seen Spider-Man in some form onscreen? It’s both comfortingly familiar and yet completely original. This wildly experimental film with its unique animation, clever story details, fantastic voice work, biting humor, pulse-pounding music score, and its initially jarring but truly mesmerizing visuals is one of the most unique, well-crafted, and fun movies of the year.  GRADE: A

Friday, December 07, 2018

The Pianist: “Green Book” is a Feel-Good Crowd Pleasing Dramedy – But Isn’t Flawless

On an award season podcast one pundit said “Green Book” is likely his mom’s favorite movie of the year even though she hasn’t even heard of it yet. Accurate. The film is entertaining from start to finish with completely compelling performances from its two main actors; they create a delectable chemistry together. General audiences will eat up the film; especially those who are prone to patting themselves on the back for seeing an “important” movie that deals with serious issues like racism. The film takes the point of view of a prejudiced white Italian-American man as he chauffeurs a distinguished black musician around for a concert tour of the segregated American South in the early 1960s. There’s comedy, there’s drama. In the end the white guy learns a valuable lesson and you leave the theater with your heart full. I felt conflicted – the movie works because of the performances and does leave you with a sense of hope but I can’t help feeling the movie is just another manipulative white savior story about how racism is bad.

How Peter Farrelly, the co-director of such comedy hits as “Dumb & Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary,” came to a story about a white and black guy becoming friends while navigating the segregated South is beyond me. The direction is fine. You can tell this is the work of a man who makes colorful, broad crowd pleasing comedies. Maybe it was the road element that attracted Farrelly to the project. Maybe he wanted to make a statement. Maybe he just wanted to try his hand at Oscar bait. But is a white guy from Rhode Island really the best choice to tell the story about how a prejudiced white guy learns to respect people of color? Farrelly is up for the challenge and he succeeds for the most part. But that sort of thing ultimately doesn’t really matter because the film that we’re given is actually a pretty enjoyable experience. And that’s because of Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.

Mortensen is Frank Vallelonga a stereotypical Italian-American New Yorker with a family who works as a bouncer at the Copacabana and is looking for other work after the club is closed for repairs. He is recommended for a job as a driver for Don Shirley (Ali) a dignified pianist who is going to be taking a tour of the Deep South in the months leading up to Christmas. Don is a black man and there’s an immediate culture clash between the two men, but Don needs Frank because he’s a tough guy who doesn’t take anyone’s BS and will protect him as he enters the racially charged Southern states. Of course Frank has is own hang ups about people of color. As the film progresses we learn more about these men and how they begin to learn about each other and change for the better. Some scenes could have been a bit cringe-worthy in less capable hands like an amusing scene where Frank stops at a KFC to enjoy fried chicken and he gets Don to eat the finger food for the first time. I sort of admire how the film plays a bit with some stereotypes and sort of calls them out.

Considering that the film is essentially an odd couple road trip movie, the script from Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga (Franks’ real life son) is pretty strong but I sometimes wonder how the film could have been even more authentic had people of color been the ones writing and directing it. Some authenticity is lost to be honest. And the fact that one interesting aspect of Ali’s character is sort of introduced and then glossed over felt frustrating. The film feels like it’s more about a white guy learning a lesson than a historically accurate portrayal of the horrors of being a black person in the South in the 60s. But this really isn’t that movie. I also have the sneakiest suspicion that the main audience for this film will most likely skew white and older. The type of audience who doesn’t necessarily run to ethnically diverse films. The film also generally feels a tad dated with a strong “Driving Miss Daisy” vibe but I’d watch this a million times before watching that film again. And the film's technical merits are fine but nothing groundbreaking.

In the end “Green Book” did actually win me over. It’ll probably win you over as well. The film works despite its flaws. Loping so much criticism on it because I did genuinely enjoy the film makes me feel a bit bad. It’s a crowd pleaser. It’ll warm your heart. You’ll wanna tell your family to go see it. There’s a reason this film kept winning audience award after audience award at various film festivals. Mortensen and Ali are extremely likable people and they play characters that you want to root for. Frank is capable of change and that’s a strong message even if it feels a tad manipulative. Ultimately the movie is a satisfying mug of cocoa on a cold winter’s night. But I do think there are more important films that do a better job at condemning racism and how to this day we as a country are still dealing with a horribly systemic issue that plagues our society. Maybe “Green Book” will change some people’s minds and make them feel a bit better about race relations. And that’s a good thing. But in a time where a progressive film like “Moonlight” can win Best Picture at the notoriously white Oscars, “Green Book” sort of feels like it’s stuck in neutral.  GRADE: B

Saturday, December 01, 2018

The Rice Storm: “The Front Runner” is a Fine, If Somewhat Forgettable, Political Docudrama

I truly believe there is a great movie somewhere in “The Front Runner” but as it turns out it’s merely a good movie, and that, I guess, can suffice. Perhaps it's a result of poor timing: I had just watched A&E’s gobsmackingly absorbing docuseries “The Clinton Affair” and no other scandalous political narrative could top that right now. The story of potential presidential candidate Gary Hart is somewhat fascinating, but it has nowhere near the notoriety of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “The Front Runner,” from hot-and-cold director Jason Reitman, wants to be the scandalous version of “Spotlight” or “The Post” but settles for a middle-of-the-road docudrama about the derailment of a well-liked politician. I believe it wants to be a commentary about tabloid journalism and the media circus that politicians can cause but it doesn’t quite have the bite of the best movies in this genre. The film features good performances and a nice sense of time and place but ultimately the film isn’t quite as charming as the guy its based on.

Hugh Jackman is trying for that elusive second Oscar nomination but unfortunately “The Front Runner” probably won’t suffice. It doesn’t help that it’s distributor, Sony, doesn’t seem to care much about the movie having dumped it in a handful of theaters post Election Day. Had the film followed the HBO political TV movie route he’d probably be talking Emmy. The film feels a lot like the fantastic HBO dramas “Recount” and “Game Change” about recent political media storms. As a theatrical release “The Front Runner” isn’t quite up to the task of the best of the genre; it ain’t no “All the President’s Men” though I feel it strives to be.

As Democratic presidential candidate and former Senator Gary Hart, Jackman oozes with likability. There was a reason of course this man was the front runner for the nomination. The film follows reporters from the prestigious Washington Post (of Watergate fame) as they cover events leading up to the Democratic presidential primary. The film also focuses on reporters from the Miami Herald who are desperate for a story. An anonymous tip leads a group of Herald reporters to Hart’s DC house where they discover Hart seeing a young woman who isn’t his wife. Her name is Donna Rice and we never really get to know much about her. Probably because she’s played with limited range by Sara Paxton. The film also almost wastes the talent of Vera Farmiga who plays Gary’s wife Lee. She has some pretty great scenes in the film’s third act but the material from screenwriters Matt Bai, Jay Carson, and Reitman just isn’t as strong as she is.

“The Front Runner” is fine. It’s quite entertaining and I feel pretty confident saying that everyone involved behind the scenes are pretty darned talented. But there’s just something off with “The Front Runner.” The music score from Rob Simonsen is pretty great, the cinematography is adequate, the production design and costuming feels right. Maybe if it had aired on HBO it would have found greater success. The film has something to say about the behavior of powerful political people and the press but it doesn’t do anything particularly clever with the subject matter. I don’t think it speaks quite loud enough. GRADE: B-

Note: As it turns out, one of best things about the film is picking out all the timely references that were made on "The Golden Girls" at the time: everything from nods to Donna Rice and Gary Hart themselves, to Gorbachev and Jim and Tammy Bakker. Now that's a movie I want to see.