Vice

Vice

Bale. Christian Bale. He’s the reason to see Vice.

The chameleon/actor portrays former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney. And, although Bale doesn’t really resemble the ex-veep, his transformation is pretty amazing. Not just Bale’s weight gain but also his accurate mimicry of Cheney’s speech patterns and Cheney’s penchant for talking out of the side of his mouth.

Cheney’s story as told in Vice is not a flattering one. Though not quite “gonzo journalism” a la Hunter S. Thompson, this “sort of” biopic has a lot of what David Letterman used to call “writer’s embellishment.” Yes, there is a framework of true facts here but parts of this narrative are bent to poke holes in Cheney’s legacy and deliver laughs. And, yes, Vice is funny!

Writer/director Adam McKay presents Cheney as a guy with little direction until his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) sets him straight. He’s a bit of a bumbling conniver when he gets to Washington and soon goes to work to establish his own sphere of influence.

(Cheney’s career included tenures as a White House Chief of Staff, a U.S. Representative, Secretary of Defense and Vice-President, so he must have demonstrated at least a modicum of competence.)

As with The Big Short, his previous comedy rooted in fact, McKay tries to simplify a complicated story that has many nooks and crannies. Should America blame Cheney for everything that has gone wrong with our nation’s involvement in Middle Eastern politics this century? McKay would have you believe that Cheney should shoulder much of the blame.

Admirably, Cheney is shown to be sympathetic and loving when his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out to her parents as gay. (Lynne is not so understanding.)

Other key players in the film include Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). They are sources of some of the funnier moments.

I called The Big Short a failure in my review of the film in 2015. Click HERE to read it. Like Vice it was wickedly funny but as an explainer for what happened to cause the financial crisis, it fell short. Vice, on the other hand, is focused and proceeds in a linear manner with few course changes. It tells its tale well, however with a liberal bent (which McKay acknowledges in a hilarious coda).

See it. Enjoy it. Don’t take it as gospel.

 

 

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Her

How many movies have given us artificial intelligence entities (computers, robots, machines) taking on human characteristics, including emotions? Way too many to mention.

Such a fantasy may have been fueled in the past couple of decades by voices that give GPS directions, function as Apple’s Siri and check us out at the grocer’s. (I prefer checking out in Spanish because el hombre sounds friendlier than the woman who guides us in English.)

In Her, filmmaker Spike Jonze, most famous for 1999’s Being John Malkovich, takes the fantasy even further. Set in the near future, hopeless romantic Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his computer operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who is never seen in the movie). “You seem like a person but you’re just a voice in a computer,” he says.

Phoenix shows his acting range by following up his powerfully crazed performance in The Master by playing this nerdy writer of love letters. That’s his job: low-tech work in a high-tech world—he writes letters for people who have outsourced this personal task. (By the way, the URL of his fictional company, beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, appears to be non-functional in our real world if you want to claim it.)

Theodore is heartbroken when he meets (or installs) Samantha because he is in the midst of a divorce from childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara). He has a platonic female friend Amy (Amy Adams, looking pale, wearing minimal makeup) with whom he shares some of his woes.

His relationship with Samantha goes through many of the stages and episodes that real life relationships have: sharing of personal details, sex (virtual), the honeymoon period, trips to the beach, double dates, jealousy and disappointment.

Because several scenes in the film consist of conversations between Theodore and Samantha, the film is often visually tedious. On the other hand, the vision of Los Angeles created by Jonze is amazing to see: clean and modern with shiny high rise buildings and a dazzling public rail system that takes Theodore everywhere, even to the beach. (Some exterior scenes were shot in Shanghai.) Also, for some reason, the film’s costume designer has put all the men in pants with no belts.

Her is not for everyone. Its weirdness, coupled with its slow pace, may turn some moviegoers off. But adventurous movie lovers should give it a shot. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is worth seeing and Scarlet Johansson’s is worth hearing. You might like the cool soundtrack by Arcade Fire.

Her is clever and creative and will receive more nominations and awards. It is certainly not your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy/drama.

American Hustle

Director David O. Russell doesn’t really have a repertory company, but all four of his lead actors in American Hustle have worked for him in either 2010’s The Fighter or 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. They all perform at a high level in American Hustle, working from a script that gives each of the four opportunities to shine. On January 16, expect a name or two or three from this ensemble to receive Oscar noms.

The root word of con, as in con man or con game, is confidence. In American Hustle, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) gains the confidence of marks who believe that he can get them loans for 50K. But first, they have to give him negotiable checks for 5-thousand to get the ball rolling.

After Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party and discovers they share a love of Duke Ellington, they become lovers and partners in crime. Sydney joins him in his con game. She fakes a British accent and implies that she can get money from friends in high places in the UK banking world.

When the con man and woman are caught by the feds, they are enlisted to aid the FBI in scamming politicians. American Hustle is not the story of the Abscam sting, which saw politicians accepting bribes. But true-life events inform much of what happens in AH.

Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is the agent who runs the sting and becomes enamored with Sydney. Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) seems at first to be a shallow, unaware housewife but later is revealed to be more clever than initially revealed.

Carmen Polito (Jeremy Renner with a pompadour Conway Twitty would’ve envied) is the mayor of Camden, New Jersey who wants to help his state get the money to help develop Atlantic City. While setting him up for the sting, Irving finds that he actually likes Carmen—which makes things interesting.

Another Russell alum (who appeared in Silver Linings Playbook), Robert DeNiro, plays a Miami mobster gets involved when a fake Arab sheik is presented as the deep pockets money man. Louis CK has a small role as agent DiMaso’s boss.

American Hustle has all the elements a movie needs to succeed: a compelling story, interesting characters and a clever telling of that story. It’s not the best movie of 2013, but it will show up on numerous top ten lists for the year, as it should.

Man of Steel

Man of Steel is full of sound and fury. It takes Superman and his families (on Krypton and on Earth) to places that original creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster never could have imagined.

Man of Steel is a prequel, the backstory of Kal-El/Clark Kent. Superman’s dad Jor-El (Russell Crowe, in a non-singing role) launches the infant Kal-El toward Earth as Krypton implodes. Amid the terror on Krypton, Jor-El gets impaled to death by Krypton nemesis General Zod (Michael Shannon). But, amazingly, he’s not out of the movie! Jor-El shows up in future events in the film, but don’t ask me to explain how. (No, he’s not a hologram.)

Meanwhile we see young Clark being raised in Smallville by the Kents, Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane). They make him control his super powers while growing up, even when peril hits close to home. Young Clark does save a busload of schoolmates from drowning after an accident, but his strength remains undercover, for the most part.

Just as the adult Superman (Henry Cavill) begins to do his super thing, here come General Zod and more bad guys from Krypton. They’ve decided to colonize Earth! Smallville is going to need millions in urban renewal funds from the feds after Zod and Superman (+ personnel and machines from the US military) tear up the town in an epic, lengthy faceoff.

Speaking of epic, lengthy faceoffs, there’s another one—this time in Metropolis—between Zod and Superman. It does not take up the entire second half of the movie, it just seems that way.

Amy Adams is Lois Lane and unlike we’ve been led to believe in every comic book, TV show and movie of the past, in Man of Steel she’s hip to the fact that Clark Kent is Superman early on. She wants to tell the whole fantastic story via the Daily Planet but editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) nixes it because it’s too outrageous.

If you enjoyed the Christopher Reeve Superman movies or even the 2006 Superman Returns with Brandon Routh in the title role, take note that this new movie has a different feel. Zack Snyder, who directed 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch, has made a movie for those who like things that go boom. Sure, there’s a bit of humanity to go along with the sound and fury, but that’s not the reason most will buy tickets.

(And to answer the question, whatever happened to Brandon Routh? He recently played a vegan male nurse—true—on a CBS sitcom called Partners that was cancelled after six episodes last fall.)

Man of Steel is a bit longer than it needs to be. (It runs 2:20 or so.) My guess is that so much was spent on battles and effects that it made it hard to leave a multi-million dollar sequence on the cutting room floor.

Cavill is a solid Superman. He plays it straight with none of the campiness witnessed in the Iron Man movies or the last Trek flick.

As does the film have excessive length, so does this review. Therefore I’ll wrap it by saying that I like Man of Steel but I didn’t love it. My guess, however, is that audiences will. Love it, that is.

Trouble with the Curve

“Trouble with The Curve” is the ANTI-“Moneyball.” TWTC slams the stats-happy computer geek baseball personnel people and gives a nod to the old school cigar-chomping scouts.

The heart of this movie is the relationship between Gus, played by Clint Eastwood, and his daughter Mickey, played by Amy Adams. Despite all that has caused their estrangement, the glue that holds them together is baseball.

Once the basic plot is set up, you can pretty much guess how it will conclude. But getting there is a fun trip, with a surprise or two along the way.

Gus, a veteran scout for the Braves, is sent to the Carolinas to check out a high school phenom. But Gus is having vision problems and, stubborn old geezer that he is, he won’t see a specialist to have the situation addressed. A Braves team exec, played by John Goodman, asks Mickey to go to the Carolinas and make sure her dad is okay. She is a rising star Atlanta attorney who is about to make partner if she can pull off a certain deal.

Among the old scouts is a young Red Sox scout, Johnny, a washed-out pitcher, played by Justin Timberlake. He, like Gus, is there to see the phenom, but he also has his eyes on Mickey. She’s standoffish, so their relationship moves slowly but predictably.

Eastwood’s character is not far removed from the codger he played in “Gran Torino” a few years back. In TWTC, he also drives a classic Ford, a 60’s Mustang. The Mustang gets banged up when Gus has trouble with the curve on a highway and pulls in front of a vehicle he didn’t see coming.

As with last year’s “Moneyball,” you don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy this movie. TWTC is a movie that will, I think, appeal equally to men and women. Yes, it’s a movie about baseball. But it’s more about relationships.

The Master

Joaquin Phoenix steps up as a strong contender for a Best Actor nomination with his portrayal of a damaged man with anger issues and sexual obsessions in “The Master.”

This is not a movie for everyone. Although it is being booked in multiplexes, as well as art houses, “The Master” will challenge many and leave others unsatisfied. Director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson, whose last film was “There Will Be Blood,” has assembled a film that is, above all, compelling. It’s one that has already generated much discussion with more to come.

“The Master” is more about its characters than its plot. The film is a series of episodes, some of which move slowly. In these episodes, we see how the film’s characters respond to the things life throws their way.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the title role. His character, Lancaster Dodd, is patterned after L. Ron Hubbard, the founder and leader of Scientology. Dodd, like many others in the movie, takes an immediate liking to Phoenix’s character, Freddie Quell.

Quell falls under Dodd’s spell and embraces The Cause, Dodd’s quasi-religious movement. Dodd is similar to numerous charismatic leaders we’ve encountered in history, some of whom can be seen on your TV every week. Dodd is, however, a generally likable guy, even though he serves up mumbo jumbo about “past lives.”

Quell becomes a member of Dodd’s entourage and Dodd begins to “work” with Freddie. Is it therapy or is Quell a guinea pig for Dodd’s techniques?

Eventually, Quell breaks away but in the end returns to Dodd, who is then in England. Dodd’s reaction to seeing Freddie again brings up questions about the true nature of their relationship.

Among the supporting cast is Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife Peggy. She wields her power from the sideline. She supports Dodd in his quest to grow support for The Cause but makes sure he has her input.

One more thing: most of the movie is set in the year 1950 and the clothes are terrific.

Should you see “The Master?” Yes, if only to witness Joaquin Phoenix’s mighty acting skill. Even if you don’t like “The Master” as a movie, this performance will astound you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Muppets”—(TFGMOTY!)

This is the perfect fun movie for families. Gen-Xers who were kids when the Muppets weekly TV show was huge will love this movie. Boomers will dig it as well.

“The Muppets” has an old-timey feel. It is shot on back lots like you’ve seen in movies for decades. Some of the costuming looks like it came from a cartoon. The musical numbers are cleverly staged and are presented with lots of pizzazz. The music is a big part of “The Muppets” but does not dominate the film.

“The Muppets” tells the story of Gary and Mary (played by Jason Segel and Amy Adams) who live in Small Town, USA. Gary has a brother named Walter who looks very much like a Muppet. When Gary and Mary head to L.A. to visit the Muppet Studios, Walter is invited to tag along.

When they visit the rundown studios, they learn that an evil man named Tex Richman (played with panache by Chris Cooper) plans to destroy the Muppet Studios to get to the oil that lies below it. The only way they can save it is to reunite the Muppets and put on a telethon to raise $10 million.

Gary, Mary and Walter head first to Bel Air and the mansion of Kermit the Frog. They track down the rest of the Muppets who are all happy to join in the mission.  Except Miss Piggy, who is a holdout. No…wait…now she is going to join in the telethon!

You might guess the outcome of this crisis. You might be surprised at some of the cameo appearances. You might be amazed how much fun you will have at this movie.

A friend whose only child is now 21 bemoaned on Facebook the fact that she has no young kids to take to see “The Muppets.” No problem; go with another adult!

If you have been waiting for “the feel-good movie of the year,” look no further. This is it.