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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ARRIVAL****Stunning


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This is a thoughtful, hugely engaging movie about the power, the desperate need for communication…as the -only- weapon that can ensure our past is linked to a clear vision of our future.

This is Amy Adams (“American Hustle”)  at her most compelling…it’s almost a one person show.

The story centres around the arrival of a dozen huge alien spacecraft that hang like dark pendants, scattered randomly across the throat of the world. No one knows why they’re there…what kind of threat, or opportunity, they represent. And unlike the city-destroying invaders of almost every other sci-fi movie about alien arrivals (“Independence Day”!), these arrivants disturb nothing around them….but our apprehensions and fears.

Amy Adams’ character -Dr. Louise Banks, a highly respected communicator and linguist, who seems to be burdened with memories of a tragic loss – is recruited, along with a physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to help an Army team (along with similar teams around the world) figure things out.

And as Luise and Ian bury their petty differences (which is more important, science or communication?) to invent – clever- ways toward their Rosetta Stone of comprehension (the aliens communicate in weird squid ink sprays that look like Rorschach test ellipses), the forces of fear and the need to take preemptive military action rise. Forest Whitaker, as the Army captain in charge of things, is himself a kind of interpreter: translating Luise’s and Ian’s need for patience, cooperation and deliberation to an Army command that, like the armies in Russia and China, view their protective mission solely through the lenses of war.

It’s jaw jaw v war war.

The movie, at times a bit slow, but always nervously thrilling (after all, we the audience also know nothing of the intention and potential malevolence of these octopus-like aliens, so we’re on edge all the time) builds toward a brilliant, Shyamalan-esque denouement (the old M.Night, when he was making clever movies) that’s as satisfying as it is mind expanding.

Canadian Director Denis Villeneuve has a growing list of tremendous movies (intelligent, exciting, character-driven): in 2013, he gave us “Prisoners” and last year, “Sicario”. In “Arrival”, the overriding tone he manages to communicate, largely through Amy’s ever shifting expressions, is one of wonder. He also has the ability to zero in on little, very human moments (Louise’s trembling hand) to dial up the drama…and the verisimilitude. There’s an aura of moodiness that dominates the movie (the first stunning shot of the spacecraft sees it hovering over a roiling cloud formation that just takes your breath away), created by Canadian production designer Patrice Vermette (“Sicario”) and cinematographer Bradford Young (“A Most Violent Year”) who, as cinematographers go, is a bit of an anomaly: he’s Black. And Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson (“The Theory of Everything”) completes the feeling of otherworldliness with a dense, atonal score.

I can’t say there can be any effective, escapist, antidote at present to the other alien who’s just arrived at the White House. But this, in its breadth of vision (an understanding of how learning to communicate with “the other” reconfigures the mind in a way that enables dialogue and understanding) does remind you that, as a species, our odyssey is far more grand than the pettiness and xenophobia of the new American narrative.

 

ARRIVAL. Dir: Denis Villeneuve. With Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker. Cinematographer: Bradford Young. Production Designer: Patrice Vermette (“Sicario”)

 

BATMAN v SUPERMAN***Packs a Punch


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DESPITE THE FACT Zack Snyder gave us one of the worst films of some time (300) and a dull as dishwater Superman (Man of Steel), his new DC Comics blockbuster (it’s that time of year), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is, if over-long and over-stuffed, a thrilling, operatic re- engagement with the Batman and Superman franchises.

DC Comics must have been suffering from Marvel envy. Marvel’s Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Avengers, Spiderman, multiple TV shows and, of late, Deadpool franchises have been raking in the money. For DC Comics, what with the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale Batman trilogy long past, only a tepid Superman (nobody remembers Brandon Routh as Superman in Superman Returns) to count on, and with JJ Abrams tied up with Star Wars, it must have been a desperate board that turned to Zac once again.

This time, the producers paired Zack and his group of regulars (Larry Fong, the cinematographer and Patrick Tatopoulis, the production designer… 300 was rubbish, but it was lovely to look at) with a strong writing team (David Goyer who wrote the story of The Dark Knight Rises and Chris Terrio from Argo) and a tremendous ensemble cast. The result is that a potential gimmick (a la Alien v Predator) has been transformed into a delight.

The story centers around what Bruce Wayne (himself an unregulated vigilante) considers to be an existential threat to humanity: the rise in popularity of an equally unregulated vigilante who is also an immortal alien with a strong God complex: Superman.

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To Bruce, this is a man who could, at a whim, destroy us all. We are ushered into the story via the concluding scenes of from the previous Superman movie (his battle against Zog): scenes of massive destruction and untold loss of human life. Zac makes a clear visual link to the fall of the twin towers, as an anguished, pissed off Bruce rushes into the engulfing cloud of debris. In his despair, a mission coalesces: rid the world of Superman. Man must kill off the God.

Into this drama of egos, enters the twitchy, crazy Lex Luthor, a man in possession of enough Kryptonite to destroy the man of steel, and bent on unleashing the forces of hell. Just to round things up, an avenging angel (Wonder Woman) joins this mythic battle of man v God v The devil.

Good Easter fare.

Zack plays the story without a trace of irony (though the writing is often laugh out loud witty) and his cast is uniformly excellent. batman-v-superman-dawn-of-justice-ben-affleck

Ben Affleck, much criticized when this casting was announced is a tremendous Batman. He’s sullen, driven and haunted by nightmares. He’s also the most ruthless Batman ever. Henry Cavil, whose performances as Superman and the man from U.N.C.L.E have been more wooden than a lumberyard full of ply-wood, actually exudes what passes for real emotion. His Superman is a man more of anguish than of steel. His powers weigh him down, and he’s burdened by responsibility. His love interest, Lois Lane is a feisty, fearless Amy Adams…a damsel in distress who refuses to be a damsel in distress. mgid-ao-image-mtv

Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is a treat. His Luthor (usually played as a comic buffoon) is part Mark Zukerman (charming, young man of the people) and part Keith Ledger’s Joker (wide-eyed, demented). It’s a frightening mix. images-3

And absolutely holding her own in this class of talent is a (relative) newcomer: the Israeli born Amazonian beauty, Gal Gadot (From The fast and Furious movies) as the fierce, badass Wonder Woman (who fortunately has shed her naff Stars and Stripes one piece bath suit for something more befitting a warrior princess). Even Jeremy Irons, in the smaller supporting role as Alfred adds gravitas to the ensemble.

So all is well in the blockbuster world. DC Comics is back in business (after all the name…Dawn of Justice is a nod to the, no doubt, soon to be released Justice League ensemble) to ensure Marvel isn’t the sole super-power around.
At least I think all is well…except for (spoiler alert) Clark Kent, who is dead.

And what of Superman?