VICE***Whatever


 

IT SEEMS a new category has slipped into the Oscars: best prosthetics-added portrayal of a fat personage. Gary Oldman successfully did it last year as Churchill, portrayed as a rough on the outside, tender on the inside, diversity-loving quasi liberal. This year, we have John C Reilly as jolly Olive Hardy; and now, Christian Bale as the Dark Lord, Dick Cheney. Bale is the winner! And a very definite potential statuette lifter.

Vice is a serio-docu-comedy. It certainly tries hard to be all three, and ends up being none of them. It’s an entertaining (because the Devil is always more fun than God), and entirely drama-free skim through of the life of an odious person. The story, apart from a few flashbacks here and there, begins with a young, dissolute and loutish Cheney and ends with the Darth Vader that we all know, still claiming to be doing his darnedness to keep America safe (Where have we heard that recently?). According to writer/director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Anchorman 2), the power behind him and the catalyst of his lust for power at any cost was his wife, Lynn, played with steely conviction by Amy Adams.

The story offers us a whistle stop tour of American policy circa 1965-2006. Here are Nixon/Kissinger secretly plotting to bomb Cambodia (with a young Cheney interned to Rumsfeld); Bush Sr. pops up briefly; and then good old boy, Bush Jr. is ushered in to yield power and authority to Cheney (and inadvertently usher in an Imperial presidency). Cheney finds a way around congressional oversight to run things once the election against Al Gore is well and truly stolen. Then 9-11 offers him his big chance to sate the public’s need to bomb somewhere (Al Qaeda was too elusive an enemy), resulting in the Iraqi invasion, along with the torture, the lucrative contracts for Halliburton etc.

And the gangs all there: a befuddled Bush (Sam Rockwell, still befuddled from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri it seems), a hawkish Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell), an outfoxed Powell (Tyler Perry), an invisible Rice (LisaGay Hamilton), a devious John Woo (Paul Yoo as the lawyer that claimed torture was OK since the US didn’t do it) along with Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, David Addington, George Tenet, Antonin Scalia and a seemingly endless rogue’s gallery of White House power brokers.

It was an unpleasant ‘trip down memory lane’ to revisit all those old faces and their vile programs. And Bale’s Cheney, with his sneer and whispered plots, makes him the unquestioned leader of the gang, the bona fide Prince of darkness.

But, despite the bizarre use of a semi-comic choric figure guiding us through the story (Jesse Plemons of America Made), McKay’s noble attempts to introduce the throb of blood, the human drama behind high stakes negotiations and covert maneuvers, the whole enterprise feels curiously bloodless. It’s like a really, really well done, liberal-leaning History Channel bio-pic.

If you didn’t like Cheney before (did anyone?), you’ll really hate him now. But here there’re no new insights, no crazy Oliver Stone conspiracy theories, no never before known stories, no world-view reinterpreted with the passage of time. If one role of art is to help you re-see the world through new eyes, Vice has left me metaphorically blindfolded.

It’ll offer you a fun time wallowing in the past and silently hissing at a pantomime villain. But unless you were asleep from 1965-2006, and thought Kissinger, Cheney et al were lovely honourable men, you won’t find much here to either enrich or modify your world-view.

 

VICE. Dir./writer: Adam McKay. With: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Eddie Marsan, Jesse Plemons. Cinematographer: Greig Fraser (Rogue One). Production Designer: Patrice Vermette (Gringo)

 

 

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MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS****Power Plays


 

THIS IS A fascinating, fabulous movie that has the temerity to focus on how the world (or for that, read ‘men’) regard and fear (a) women and, worse (b) powerful women. Oh, and it’s set in the late sixteen century. Plús ca change…

The story centers on those few years when England and Scotland were ruled, oh horror, by two determined queens: Elizabeth 1, a Tudor, (played with great subtlety by Margot Robbie whose career seems to go from strength to strength) and Mary, a Stuart (with Saoirse Ronan once again in a deliciously watchable command performance). French educated Mary, unwanted by the caretaker regent, her half brother (James McArdle), had the added disadvantage of being Catholic in the increasingly Protestant Tudor world. Our first image of her is that of a waterlogged woman washed up on the Scottish shore, like just another European refugee.

The very cleverly written story (by House of Cards writer, Beau Williamson), manages to condense the baroque intricacies of the endless English and Scottish Court intrigues and geopolitical maneuvers, into a few understandable topically relevant broad strokes. Here is England v Scotland, Protestant v Catholic, Tudor v Stuart, the possible legal claim of Stuart monarchical right over the Tudors and the rush to ensure that the right person inherit the throne.

Confused. No matter.

Though in the end, Mary’s and Elizabeth’s preferences for a sisterly power-sharing is undone, the focus of the tale is not one of woman v woman. (Theatre) Director Josie Rourke intercuts from one queen to the other to explore the similarity of the forces that oppose them (Pretty much all the men in their two lives are double-dealing bastards); and, more pointedly, how each woman seeks to deal with these opposing forces.

Both women are seen as inadequate to the task of ruling a country, by dint of their sex. Both the English and Scottish lords regard the ascension of women to the crown as an insult to their masculinities. To them, the Queen really has but one function: to produce an heir.

Elizabeth -ever distrustful of men and disfigured by smallpox – remains, despite her affection for Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), unyieldingly chaste. Mary – ever conscious of her responsibility to the realm – allows herself to be married three times (the first to the French Dauphin, a child who couldn’t, then to a drunk ‘sodomite’ who mainly wouldn’t, but who produced the heir, and finally to a court sanctioned nobleman who rapes her). All these marriages…in the eyes of ‘the Lord’, she must be a strumpet.
Between them, they exemplify the society’s view of the woman: virgin or whore.

The movie is all about these ways of viewing.

Elizabeth understands more acutely than Mary the power of image. She overcomes the bias against her gender by simply denying it. She morphs from the pretty young girl who inherited a realm to a figure claiming to be – in all ways but biological- a man. She finally transcends even this gender allocation. She becomes an icon; an inscrutable white mask…the embodiment of England itself.

Mary, especially with her retinue of French ladies in waiting, never hides her femininity (“I’ll be the woman she is not” she says of Elizabeth). It’s as though she’s daring her Court to accept her for what she is: a sexy woman, and their – steely, determined, unbowed, and uncompromising – Queen. Whereas Elizabeth buried her human side, Mary chooses to manage the delicate balance between being both a woman and being an abstract idea: the Royal personage, the nation. Mainly, she tries oh so hard, to be true to herself…a faithful wife, a forgiving sister (to her double crossing brother), a good mother, a proud Scot, and, uncompromisingly, the queen of England as well..

It’s a failing strategy, especially when the toxic ingredient of religion is thrown into the mix. Her bete noir is the fiery rabble-rousing (read: populist) cleric, John Knox (David Tennant at his enraged, histrionic best) who whips up resentment against this powerful woman who dared to be… a powerful woman.

Saoirse and Margot are of course centre stage in this drama. And they are both magnetically watchable. But there’s a wonderful cast of supporting noblemen, lovers, courtiers, and gentlewomen that jostle for our attention. Director Rourke felt it important to select the best actors available. The result was a Black English ambassador (Adrian Lester, as one of several Black actors) and an Asian Lady (Gemma Chan) in waiting. This indifference to what may be historical accuracy is, as we’ve seen in The Favourite, just another way to drive home the point: the story of history is a portal to the story of today.
Rourke’s symbol laden, semiotic, directorial style is worth noting. Every scene both advances the story and layers meaning upon meaning. We cut for example from a scene with Mary surrounded by her ladies, legs apart under bloodied garments cradling her crying newborn (who will become James I of a unified England and Scotland), to a matching scene with Elizabeth similarly legs apart, opening out to a cascade of blood red roses. To one Queen there’s an heir; to the other, nothing more than silent floral arrangements.

The movie has been criticized for its seemingly cavalier way with historical accuracy. A showdown meeting between the two Queens did not for example actually take place. And the historical record suggests that her third husband, Bothwell (Martin Compston from Line of Duty) was her long time lover.

It doesn’t matter. The spirit of the times is there. It’s what art does: shape a story to illustrate an idea. More importantly the idea that two women would have the temerity to take on the massed lords of their land is the true historical lesson, not the minutiae of recorded incident

Finally, as with anything she’s in, this movie is worth the time and money just for Saoirse Ronan. If she seduces you into the flickering darkness, you’ll be well rewarded.

 

MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS: Dir: Josie Rourke. Writer: Beau Williamson (from the book by John Gay). With Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Simon Russell Beale, Martin Compston (Line of Duty), Adrian Lester (Undercover), Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians). Cinematographer: John Mathieson (Logan). Production Designer: James Merifield, Costume Designer: Alexandra Byrne (Dr. Strange)

 

 

STAN & OLLIE *** Pleasant. Nothing more


THE BIG QUESTION that hovers over this well acted, efficiently directed movie is “why bother”?

It’s a charming tale about love and friendship; and (Stan) Laurel & (Olliver) Hardy are certainly part of comedy history. But there’s nothing here – that’s noteworthy or breakthrough or insightful – to really earn our engagement.

It’s Laurel & Hardy. The movie is big of heart, but that’s really not enough to answer that question

The movie is based on their last few years. At this point (mid nineteen fifties), the comic duo, who had their heyday just before the war, are playing to half empty music halls in England. Why? The suggestion is that a combination of (relatively) poor salaries, multiple alimonies and spendthrift ways have forced them to keep on performing, rerunning old routines to devoted if sparse English audiences. Almost as a sop to their egos, they fool themselves that they’re only in England as a stop-gap measure before filming a Robin Hood story.

But beyond the need for cash, the idea that runs through the movie is their need to keep performing as if somehow this would act as a brake on the flow of time. Ars longa, vita brevis and all that. Their ars will not be longa for long: comedy is evolving and new performers – Norman Winston, Abbot and Costello – are grabbing the headlines. But Stan and Ollie and their audiences seem to live in a bubble where nothing has changed, where time stands still; where only the ghosts of the past – performances, audiences, old grievances – still exist

Except of course time doesn’t stand still. Their bodies are aging. Ollie’s heart, like his knees is weakening. And behind the staged bonhomie, their friendship, still shaken from an event seventeen years before over a money issue (forcing Hardy to appear in a movie without Laurel) is fraying.

The tension between their obvious love for each other and their irritation with each other gives the story the feel of one long drawn out therapy session. Will they recover their lost mutual affection? Will Ollie’s heart and knees survive for one last hurrah?

Do we care?

Both actors – John C Reilly as Hardy and Steve Coogan (Philomena) as Laurel – are superb. Coogan in particular (who fortunately didn’t have the handicap of playing in a fat suit and under tons of prosthetics) channels Stan Laurel stunningly well. Director Jon S. Baird (Filth) manages to avoid schmaltz and conjure up the kind of childlike silliness of their routines with great affection. Perhaps there’s a meta fiction at work here: a nostalgic evocation of a lost time…a fond remembrance of things past in a world less divided.

The idea is as silly as their routines…a piece of froth to enjoy for ninety minutes before getting back to movies that matter

 

STAN and OLLIE. Dir: Jon S Baird. Writer: Jeff Pope (Philomena). With: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson (Happy Valley), Nina Arianda (Goliath), Rufus Jones (W1A and the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine). Composer: Rolfe Kent (Downsizing). Cinematographer: Laurie Rose (Journeyman)

 

Colette**** Another Star is Born


ABOVE AND BEYOND its compelling story, there are two great reasons to see this engagingly enjoyable film: a fearless Keira Knightley as the eponymous Colette, who convincingly morphs from ingénue country bumpkin to self-possessed cultural icon. And Dominic West (The Affair) in a barnstorming Oscar-worthy role as her charismatic, bullying, unfaithful, attractive, eloquent, selfish bastard of a husband and mentor and putative lord and master.

They are a dynamite couple; probably one of the most memorable movie couples in many years.

The story is based on the real story of an extraordinary woman: Sidonier-Gabrielle Colette. She was married at a tender age to this much older man, Henri Gauthier-Villars (West) who then whisked her away from the safety of her country home…from her childhood and her past…to sophisticated, decadent Paris. Henri is a Svengali type creative producer with a stable of writers working for him on books, plays etc. under his brand name, Willy. He’s a larger than life salon celebrity whose excesses have bankrupted him.

It is the written reminiscences of his young wife, daydreaming of a past she knew and loved, that come to the rescue. Colette’s early drafts of her youthful daydreams he finds charming but naïve. Henri’s genius lies in the way he reshapes, edits and redirects her writing (to the point of locking her in her room until she’s written enough). The result is the wildly popular best-selling Claudine, a fictional creation based so closely on reality that Gauthier-Villars’ controlling hand even threatens to neutralize the real Colette by the imagined creation.

For a while, Colette is content to be a mere extension of his brand…to live the lies of his serial infidelities and of the carefully curated narrative that a 45 year old Parisian man could have the nous to convincingly write from the perspective of an 18 year old girl. It is a toxic co-dependency.

But truth will out. And soon enough, her dual, interwoven demands for a relationship based on honesty and the need to assert her own identity, to stop playing the part of the adoring wife, raise their head. She demands recognition of her authorship. It’s a demand to be recognized as an individual, to have her stories based on her memories be credited to her. This is paralleled by her need to understand, explore and consummate her own (passionate) sexual identity. (which she does initially with the frustrated American wife – Eleanor Tomlinson from Poldark – of an aging millionaire).

In order to be herself, to be true to herself, she must free herself from Henri, from the constraints of her society, even from Claudine, her creation and alter ego.

And this is what Colette is all about: the idea that we’re socialized into acceptable roles – as mother, wife, heterosexual – that we feel obliged to act out and live up to. But to be true to ourselves (and those around us), we need to be brave enough to free ourselves, no matter the consequences.

It is only once Colette has freed herself from Henri and the world around him that she can allow herself to fall in love (again) on her terms; this time with a cross-dressed woman (Denise Gough) Finally, liberated to be herself, she becomes the author of her own story…beholden to no man, to no narrative of lies.

One notable element of the movie is the brilliance of Andrea Flesch’s costume designs. Like The Favourite, much is made of the clothes people are wearing. At the very beginning, when the young Colette leaves her parent’s cottage to fetch some fruit for her mom, the mom (Fiona Shaw) insists that she change her dress. It’s a simple, ‘girlie’ country frock that she’ll soon shed in the barn where Henri, even then her lover, awaits her. Later in Paris, as a signifier of his ‘ownership’, Henri dresses her to his pleasure, which even includes dressing her as a schoolgirl (as a route to his, increasingly difficult, stimulation). Her emergence as an individual is shown as she changes her sophisticated, if generic, Parisian couture, first to a very stylish fin de siècle modernism and then to a man’s clothes which at the end is dramatically ripped to reveal her breast…the naked truth. She has finally become herself by leaving behind the trappings of how heterosexual society expects her to dress. In a sense her clothes – that proclaim her homosexuality- become true to her.

The movie was directed by Wash Westmoreland who with, now deceased, writer Richard Glatzer (to whom the movie is dedicated) gave us the brilliant Still Alice. It’s one of those really well written movies, cleverly masking very thoughtful explorations of identity and truth with the semblance of ‘everyday’ dialogue.

And it is by far one of the best performances by Knightley

 

COLETTE. Dir/Writer: Wash Westmoreland. Screenplay: Richard Glatzer. With: Keira Knightley, Fiona Shaw, Dominic West, Denise Gough. Composer: Thomas Adés. Production Designer: Michael Carlin (The Two Faces of January). Costume Designer: Andrea Flesch