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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Welcome To Marwen

Marwen

Welcome To Marwen is weird. The film’s first trailers hinted at an Oscar push for Steve Carell who portrays a man damaged in many ways by a savage gang beating. The trailers also showed a tiny village the character has created where he depicts scenarios using dolls, including one that looks like him.

The story of the challenges Mark Hogancamp (Carell) faces after the attack dials up audience pity as he flashes back to the encounter with local rednecks. His mental state is fragile but Carell never goes “full retard,” to use the non-PC term coined by character Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) in the 2008 film Tropic Thunder.

The weirdness comes in those scenarios with the dolls and their depictions in the film as animated narrative episodes in which his attackers become Nazi soldiers. In many of the episodes, several of the women in his life become a gang of voluptuous babes who come to his defense.

On one hand, the dolls provide subject matter for Hogancamp’s artistic photos, which he manages to get booked for a show at an art gallery. On the other hand, they fuel his nightmarish replays of the attack as well as other fantasies. One imagined scenario involves new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann) who spurns his romantic intentions.

It’s an ambitious attempt to bring to the screen the mental goings on of this troubled man whose recovery appears doubtful. But it is too much. The doll scenarios occupy huge chunks of screen time and many are redundant. The fantasy world becomes tiresome.

The women, seen as dolls as well as real people, include Gwendoline Christie, Meritt Wever, upcoming R & B singer Janelle Monae, Eiza Gonzalez and Leslie Zemeckis, wife of the film’s director Robert Zemeckis. (Diane Kruger appears only as a doll.)

But… does Carell stand a chance at getting awards love? His performance is good in a flawed film. Carryover from his work in the film Vice and the general good will he seems to convey in real life may go along with Welcome To Marwen to get his name in the mix. Playing a damaged individual is often the path to an acting nomination. As long as one does not go “full retard.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Battle Of The Sexes

BOTS

In 1973, Billie Jean King faced off against Bobby Riggs in a tennis match in Houston’s Astrodome. King was near the top of her game. Riggs was over the hill but still playing. The film story of their match (and events leading up to it) is a drama/comedy with a huge splash of 70’s nostalgia.

The main reason to see Battle of the Sexes is Steve Carell’s performance as Bobby Riggs. He’s hilarious but also a bit pitiful and tragic.

Emma Stone is strong as King, fighting hard to get attention for women’s tennis while resetting her sexual identity.

Battle of the Sexes is being sold as a movie about the tennis match and the boost the contest gave to women’s sports. Which it is.

But it is also King’s coming out story, which is not a prominent part of the film’s trailers and other marketing. Is Hollywood afraid to promote that aspect of the film? Brokeback Mountain was twelve years ago.

Husband/wife director duo Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris neatly weave audio and video from the actual ABC broadcast of the event with the hyperbolic commentary of Howard Cosell. The clothing and hairstyles of the era—and the presence of cigarettes—are accurately recreated by the movie’s design crews.

The film’s supporting cast includes: Andrea Riseborough as BJK’s partner Marilyn Barnett. Jessica McNamee as nasty King rival Margaret Court. Fred Armisen as Riggs’s supplier of vitamins and supplements. Sarah Silverman as a chainsmoking womens tennis promoter. Elizabeth Shue as Riggs wife. And Bill Pullman as former tennis great Jack Kramer.

Battle of the Sexes is not a typical melodramatic sports movie a la Rocky, Rudy, etc. There’s melodrama, yes, but also a good dose of fun, mainly from Carell.

Could any of today’s top female tennis players beat one of today’s top men’s players? Hard to say, but it’s doubtful. Maybe one could score a win against an old guy. Would America tune in to watch Serena versus McEnroe? Would you? Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Short

The Big Short is one of the more clever, creative and different films to come down the mainstream movie track in a long time. It contains one of the year’s best acting performances. It is, unfortunately, a failure.

Why? Because it is too cute. Because it tries to explain arcane financial information in silly ways. Because it attempts to assign white hats and black hats where many hats should be gray. Because, ultimately, it is hard to cheer for these few winners when there were so many losers.

We all know what happened in 2007-2008. Okay, we don’t know exactly what happened but we know how the nation’s economic collapse affected each of us individually. The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’s book, tries to tell part of that story with humor.

Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is a Deutsche Bank employee on Wall Street who serves as narrator, occasionally turning directly to the camera in the middle of a scene to share a point of exposition. He drips smugness.

Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a California doctor who leads an investment group. Burry, a man with tons of nervous energy (the real life Burry has Asperger’s), guesses that the housing market will collapse in ’07 when many subprime mortgages are scheduled to adjust significantly higher. He makes huge bets (using his investors’ money) that the mortgage banking industry will suffer defaults on home loans. Bale’s performance as this quirky but self-assured gambler is among his best.

Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) is part of a New York-based investment consortium which receives much of its funding from Morgan Stanley, a major Wall Street institution. Baum has a strong moral compass. He is concerned about right and wrong, yet he proceeds with betting against the banks—including Morgan Stanley.

Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) is a Boulder-based investor who wants to get in on “shorting” the mortgage market but his capitalization is too low. With help from Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former banker who has cashed out and retired, he gets in on the action.

Director Adam McKay (who co-wrote) includes clever quick montages of timely images to reflect the times. They include a Britney Spears clip to represent 2000 and a 1st generation iPhone to indicate 2007. The segments with Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez (alongside a real economist) attempting to simplify some of the complexity of finance are funny. Are they informative? A little.

McKay gets an “A” for ambition and a gold star for trying to relate the stories in Lewis’s book in a lighthearted manner. But The Big Short fails to accomplish its mission. I am betting against it.

Foxcatcher

 

The acting in Foxcatcher is excellent. The characters are intriguing. The story, however, is unexciting. Based on true events, set in the 1980s, Foxcatcher is mainly about one man and his quirks. Okay, two men with quirks.

John Du Pont (Steve Carell) is a self-described “rich guy” who is obsessed with wrestling. (Legitimate wrestling, not the WWE type.) He is an heir to the vast Du Pont fortune. He resides on an estate in the Philadelphia suburb of Newtown Square.

He recruits Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to train at his estate. Du Pont’s relationship with Schultz goes beyond being a patron. He presents Schultz almost as a trophy. “Have you ever met an Olympic gold medalist?” he asks associates at a banquet.

Du Pont soon convinces Mark’s brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) to bring his wife and family and help coach the Olympic wrestling team at Foxcatcher Farms.

Du Pont has issues, as many rich people do. He got his wealth the old-fashioned way… he inherited it. He tries to convince his mother (Vanessa Redgrave, in a brief but powerful appearance) that he’s doing something worthwhile. He also sees his role in leading the team to victory as his legacy, a service he’s providing the country.

Mark Schultz also has issues. He’s been in his brother’s shadow most of his life. He’s not particularly bright or socially adept. And he does not handle failure well.

This odd dynamic generates events that lead to a tragic end.

Steve Carell, with prosthetic nose and stunt teeth, is terrific as Du Pont. (His portrayal generated early awards buzz which seems to have cooled lately.) Channing Tatum is a perfect dumb jock—his posture and his gait are dead on. Ruffalo is also strong as the loving, protective big brother.

The narrative leaves much to be desired, but the acting here is superb.

Unless you’re a wrestling fan, it’s the performances of the three main actors that provide the reasons to see Foxcatcher.

Hope Springs

This is a movie for older grownups. The advance screening was sponsored by AARP. Stars Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are on the cover of the August AARP magazine.

Can someone under 50 relate to a married couple that hasn’t had sex in over four years? I’m not sure whether many married couples OVER 50 can relate to such celibacy. But that issue is part of the problem that sets the plot of “Hope Springs” in motion.

Meryl is Kay. Tommy Lee is Arnold. They are a middle-class couple from Omaha who have been married 31 years. She picks up a self-help book by a marriage counselor and drags Arnold along to a small town in Maine called “Great Hope Springs” for a week-long session with the author. The counselor is Steve Carrell in a (mostly) non-comedic role.

“Hope Springs” is funny and poignant. The highlights of the film are Tommy Lee Jones’ hilarious facial expressions and a classic scene in a movie house, which I will not spoil by revealing details.

Of course, Meryl Streep’s acting skill is a given. Since she is playing an ordinary housewife, it may seem that she’s not working as hard as, say, when she’s playing Maggie Thatcher or Julia Child. No matter how hard she may or may not be working, her screen presence shows why she’s one of the giants of acting.

The TV spots make “Hope Springs” look like a laugh fest and, while there are some good yuks, this is a movie that reveals the problems many couples (of all ages) have communicating. While the four-year whoopie drought may seem extreme to many of us, there are issues in Kay and Arnold’s marriage that all long-married couples can identify with.

“Hope Springs” is rated PG-13 but addresses sexual issues that may make certain audience members squirm, just like they make Kay and Arnold squirm.

“Hope Springs” is not just for the over 50 crowd, but if you are beyond that milestone—especially if you’ve been married a few decades—this one’s for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

First things first, this “end of the world” movie kicks “Melancholia’s” butt.

What would you do if you found out the world was going to end in three weeks? You might panic, you might riot, you might party, you might share “gallows” humor. Or if, like Steve Carell’s character, Dodge, you’ve just been dumped by your wife, you might be almost totally unemotional.

Dodge offers aid to his neighbor Penny, a free spirit type played by Keira Knightley. They soon leave the dangers of the city to embark on a road trip to see forgotten family members and ex-lovers before the end comes.

SAFFTEOTW has laughs and horrors. It contrasts order and chaos, sadness and joy, heartbreak and love. One hilarious scene on the road trip takes place at a bar/grill called “Friendsy’s” where the staff is just a bit too eager to please. This comes moments after a scene of surprise gruesomeness.

After the stop for food and drink at Friendsy’s, Dodge and Penny get back in the truck and satisfy other appetites. The stoic Dodge enjoys her company, but is intent on finding his old high school girlfriend. Penny, meanwhile, is mainly focused on seeing an old boyfriend and her folks before earth goes kaput.

SAFFTEOTW is a sweet movie. Lead actors who are easy to like, and a script that mixes light moments with heavy, result in successful film. In a situation that is desperate but inevitable, the tension that could overwhelm is tempered. Yes, it is the end of the world, but you won’t have your personal world too badly rocked.