Archive for the Biography Category

The Irishman

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on December 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

irishmanSTARS4The Irishman has been a labor of love 10 years in the making for Marin Scorsese.  What’s not to like?  You’ve got an esteemed filmmaker working within his wheelhouse of gangster movies.  This is a genre the filmmaker does very well.  Despite the superlatives you may have heard, it’s not his best work, but it is still very compelling.

The Irishman highlights a trio of great performances.  There’s the irresistible opportunity to watch Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci reunite with director Martin Scorsese.  They last worked together in Casino.  Now let’s add Al Pacino to the cast, an actor who has surprisingly never worked with Scorsese.   The chronicle is a sprawling epic about Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who was an American labor union official.  The story is told from his insider’s point of view as we follow his trajectory from World War II veteran to truck driver to hitman for the Philly mob and eventual union leader.  His personality is focused and driven in brutal behavior but oddly detached.  He has very little qualms about his murderous actions.

Sheeran meets Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) the head of the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family.  Joe Pesci is back in his first major screen role in almost a decade.  Here he gives a very un-Pesci like performance.  He made a name for himself playing flamboyant individuals in Goodfellas, Home Alone, My Cousin Vinny and Lethal Weapons 2,3, & 4.  Here he subverts expectations with his understated display.  He’s reserved but powerful.  There’s a subtle brilliance to the performance.  Bufalino subsequently introduces Sheeran to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the forceful President of the Teamsters Union.  For me, this is where the production really takes off.  Once Al Pacino shows up portraying the labor union leader, the film gets its focus.  He is unquestionably the MVP of this production.  The chronicle becomes more engaging, particularly in the last hour where it builds to its conclusion.

The Irishman presents itself as a narrative account of history.  The movie is a fascinating tale that begins with Frank Sheeran as an old man reflecting on the details of his life.  Screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapts the drama based on the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses by investigator Charles Brandt.  The book was based on his interviews with Frank Sheeran.  Given its $150 million budget, this is Martin Scorsese’s most expensive production.  For that you can thank costly CGI that de-ages these septuagenarians over the course of their lives.  Much has been written about this decision.  I noticed it at first, then accepted the technique after a while.  It was never an issue after that.  I don’t see it as any different than using prosthetics and makeup to artificially age an actor.  It’s just that we now have the technology to this in reverse.  Having these three actors playing the same role over the course of a lifetime gives their characters an added weight and poignancy.  That emotional gravitas wouldn’t have been present if distinct actors had been cast at various stages.  It adds to the extensive, all-encompassing nature of the saga.

The narrative recounts the events over 50 years.  Whether Sheeran’s confessions are the gospel truth is certainly up for debate, but they do make a gripping — albeit taxing — tale.  Given its three and a half hours, the aggressive runtime puts this squarely in the company of legendary works like Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, and Lawrence of Arabia.  Those films justified their extreme length in a way that this film does not.  I blame lots of little extended comedic vignettes that pop up occasionally.  While amusing, the inclusion of so many doesn’t vindicate the extended runtime.  However I still highly recommend this feature.

How you watch this movie will undoubtedly affect your enjoyment.  In the past, cinema of this length was originally shown with an intermission.   When The Irishman received a limited theatrical release on November 1, 2019, it was exhibited with no break whatsoever.  Then it was subsequently made available on digital streaming through Netflix on November 27,  less than a month later.  I saw The Irishman on Netflix which is appropriate.   That’s how the majority of the world will see this film.  My experience was not confined to a seat for nearly four hours but rather over the span of two nights where I had the option of using a pause button.  Seeing it at home provides the freedom to use the restroom, grab something to eat, or the opportunity to confirm just how many gangster movies Marin Scorsese has actually directed.*   I thoroughly enjoyed it in that way.

11-27-19

* It’s six by the way (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, The Irishman).

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on November 26, 2019 by Mark Hobin

beautiful_day_in_the_neighborhoodSTARS3Fred Rogers was an American icon.  He hosted Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a TV show directed at preschool-aged children.  Considering both the movie poster and the title, you’d think that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood would be about that man.  You’d be wrong and that idiosyncrasy is what makes this production so strange.  This is, in fact, a story about a cynical somewhat misanthropic journalist named Lloyd Vogel portrayed by Matthew Rhys (FX TV’s The Americans) as seen through the eyes of American children’s host Mister Rogers played by Tom Hanks.

Lloyd Vogel works for Esquire magazine and he’s been assigned to do a profile on Mister Rogers that he doesn’t want to do. Incidentally, Vogel is based on a very real journalist named Tom Junod who wrote an article entitled “Can You Say…Hero?” published in November of 1998.  Lloyd isn’t a happy man and much of the drama explains why he is the way he is.  We are introduced to the various people in his family, his personable wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), their baby son Gavin and Lloyd’s father Jerry (Chris Cooper).  Mister Rogers assumes the role of a therapist to the writer as he tries to gently help him repair the damaged relationship that he has with his dad.

Tom Hanks is America’s sweetheart, sort of a modern-day James Stewart and watching him portray Mister Rogers is odd because he’s so famous that it is impossible for him to disappear into the role.  Hanks doesn’t look like the actual man either.  Although he does affect his beatific demeanor.  It’s a peculiar performance that has received critical acclaim but it left me cold.  He seems almost alien or otherworldly.  Fred Rodgers was unquestionably a unique personality but at least his singularly placid disposition felt natural.  Hanks’ movements, in contrast, are jerkier and appear like studied behavioral traits.  He’s so affected that the demonstration becomes an amiable parody rather than a manifestation of the individual.

Like the man himself, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is supremely gentle and restrained.  I was fascinated by how passive the whole exercise was.  Visually the feature is enchanting.  Production designer Jade Healy has used miniatures to recreate cityscapes and little vehicles like jets taking off to signify when people travel.  This mimics the look and feel of his original children’s TV program.  The set of the TV show Fred Rogers occupied is perfectly recreated at WQED in Pittsburgh, where the original series was filmed.  The “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” also makes an appearance.  This fictional kingdom populated by hand puppets is beautifully brought to life.

Director Marielle Heller is a talented filmmaker responsible for the audacious The Diary of a Teenage Girl and the even more accomplished Can You Ever Forgive Me?  I am a fan. Here she makes a lot of creative decisions that are easy to admire but hard to enjoy.  The fragments fixated on Mister Rogers are fascinating because he’s an interesting man.  The portions centered on the inaccessible Lloyd Vogel aren’t compelling.  His transformative journey goes exactly to the place to which I expected.  The screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster triggered unexpected flashbacks to when I saw Julie & Julia a decade ago.  When the comedic drama featured Julia Child the chef, it was a delight.  When Julie Powell the blogger became the focus, it was significantly less so.  Likewise, Fred Rogers is inherently appealing.   When the film concentrates on him it’s captivating.  Unfortunately, this is a biography about Lloyd Vogel.

11-21-19

Ford v Ferrari

Posted in Action, Biography, Drama with tags on November 21, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ford_v_ferrariSTARS4There’s something refreshingly retro about Ford v. Ferrari.  A traditional well-written tale about fast cars, friendships among men and their competitive spirit.  It’s the type of macho entertainment that used to feature actors like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Sean Connery, and James Garner.  The pictures made beaucoup bucks at the box office and still managed to get a nomination or two at the Academy Awards.  That just may happen again this year because audiences have embraced this (A+ Cinemascore), critics truly love it (92% on RT) and Oscar pundits are all abuzz.  I’m truly delighted by its popularity because I agree.  This is an enjoyable movie.

Ford v Ferrari is set in the 1960s and that time-honored sensibility makes this chronicle feel like it was made in the same period.  The saga centers on two charismatic individuals whose chemistry together sells the entire film.  There’s Matt Damon who plays Carroll Shelby, an American automotive designer and Christian Bale as Ken Miles, an English race car driver.  Together they work for the Ford Motor Company in its effort to beat Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans race.  A cantankerous relationship is stirred between Ford and Ferrari.  This is created when the vice president, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), has a meeting in Italy with Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone).  There’s a variety of other assorted developments that lay the groundwork in the beginning.  It takes nearly an hour in this 152-minute production to get to the proper story.  However, every minute feels necessary because it makes what happens later that much more emotionally compelling.

There is such irony (and genuine hubris) in casting a mammoth American entity like Ford as an underdog David while portraying the significantly smaller Italian Ferrari company as the arrogant and conceited Goliath that must be defeated.  Perhaps that’s why it’s called Ford v. Ferrari in the U.S. but Le Mans ’66 everywhere else in the world.  That rivalry means more here I suppose.  However, there’s also conflict within the Ford team.  This sets up Ford as this bureaucratic corporation represented by a lot of men in suits.  The key figures are represented by CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), and Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas ) a Ford executive who insidiously becomes more of an antagonist than their fellow racing competitors.

The antagonism between Ford and Ferrari is less interesting than the battle of wills between Ford the corporation vs. Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles.  The two mavericks are trying to support a company that runs on committee.  Shelby and Miles appear to be quick-witted experts when it comes to decision making.  I have no idea whether the actual men behaved as they are portrayed here, but their interactions are extremely fascinating to watch.  Together these two actors give colorful performances that bring these personalities to life.  Ken Miles is quite a character and Christian Bale’s achievement is especially noteworthy.  Director James Mangold and Bale have an established rapport having worked together before on 3:10 to Yuma.  They clearly bring out the best in each other.

This is the ultimate Dad movie.  It’s a conventional tale about manly things.  Furthermore, it features Miles’ close relationship with his son Peter (Noah Jupe).  Their bond is a key component and a true source of emotional depth.  Sometimes true life is stranger than fiction.  The account details one development that had me consulting the history books.  I had to verify that what I saw really happened.  I like pictures that do that although situations in real life don’t always play out in a way that is as satisfying.  Nevertheless, we are still presented with some of the best car racing car sequences ever put on film.  They’re perfectly edited pieces of thrills bursting with loud and adrenaline-fueled excitement.  Special mention to editors Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland who know how to edit an action sequence to maximum effect.  The racing scenes are spectacular but in the end, it’s the performances that make this drama transcendent.  This classic narrative beautifully highlights male camaraderie.  It has all the qualities of a bygone era but it’s old fashioned in the best sense of the word.  It’s the human element that provides the most sparks.

11-14-19

Official Secrets

Posted in Biography, Drama, Thriller with tags on October 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

official_secretsSTARS3There have been many: Mark Felt, Daniel Ellsberg, Karen Silkwood, Mark Whitacre, Linda Tripp, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden.  You may not know all their names, but what they did had a profound effect.  A whistleblower can change the course of history.  The current presidential administration is now dealing with one.  A C.I.A. officer has alleged Ukraine interference in the American elections.  No doubt that’s the topic of another production in the future.   Needless to say, the subject has never been more timely.

The tale of this film set in 2003 concerns British translator Katharine Gun who worked at the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters.  She comes across an e-mail directing the GCHQ to dig up dirt on members of the U.N. Security Council.  The information to be used as blackmail so as to encourage a positive vote approving the U.S. push for war against Iraq following 9/11.  I wasn’t familiar with her account.  That may have made this chronicle a more exciting experience for me.

Katherine leaks the memo and the drama hinges on whether this whistleblower is a hero or a traitor.  The main character is played by Keira Knightley so you can probably predict how the audience is supposed to feel about this woman.  As the events unfold her life becomes more and more fraught with turmoil.  These political thrillers can be very dry and this one is paced is like a police procedural.  It’s not flashy.  However, I’ve always found Keira to be a compelling actress so her predicament becomes quite interesting.   She brings an urgency to the role that makes the movie feel important.  I was indeed invested in the story of Katharine Gun.

09-24-19

Judy

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Music with tags on September 30, 2019 by Mark Hobin

judy_ver2STARS4Oh sure there’s entertainers Judy Collins and Judy Holliday but a biopic simply called Judy would have to be about Judy Garland.  Any endeavor presenting an account of the stage, screen and television star has an awesome task set before them.  Judy, however, is narrowly focused in scope.   This is not a traditional biopic of an entire life in showbiz.  It’s a highly selective snapshot.  Judy is adapted by screenwriter Tom Edge from the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter.   It chronicles her life in 1969 when she did a series of sold-out concerts at London nightclub The Talk of the Town.

This is not a happy tale.  These are the events that occurred during the last year of Judy’s life.  The drama presents the details of her existence at the time.  As such it is the profile of a career in decline.  She has no home, losing one hotel room due to nonpayment and checking into another one with kids Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey) and Joey Luft (Lewin Lloyd) in tow.  She accepts a gig for a 5 week run of shows in London so that she can afford to take care of her kids.  The irony is that by agreeing to the engagement she is physically unavailable to be with them.  And what about those concerts?  Well, depends on what night you showed up.  Sometimes she would come out and deliver that legendary magic in a stellar show greeted by thunderous applause.  Other times she wouldn’t take the stage at all, or if she did, perhaps she’d stumble out in a drunken stupor.

Judy is about one woman.  However, many other personalities affected her experiences.  Director Rupert Goold occasionally cuts to flashbacks of Judy’s childhood (portrayed by Darci Shaw) where we eavesdrop on her interactions with studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery).  These berating conversations on the set of The Wizard of Oz will foreshadow the insecurities of her adulthood.  There are some lighthearted moments too.  The most uplifting occurs in the present.  Garland runs into two fans named Dan and Stan, an older gay couple played by Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira.  They’re waiting to greet her outside when she leaves the nightclub where she’s performing.  Feeling lonely, she asks to join the stunned pair for dinner.  The characters may be fictional but the warmth of their interaction is genuine.  The film also stars Finn Wittrock as fifth husband Mickey Deans, Rufus Sewell as Sidney Luft, her third marriage, Gemma-Leah Devereux as Liza Minnelli, Michael Gambon as theatrical manager Bernard Delfont, and Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder, the show’s production assistant.  All of these individuals encompass the portrait of an artist but make no mistake, they are all in service to the tale of one superstar.

As a story, it’s sad and muted but as the presentation of a singing idol, it’s spectacular.  I admit I walked in rather skeptical but I walked out a believer.  Renée Zellweger channels Judy Garland in a way that is uncanny.  I still can’t believe this is the same actress that played Bridget Jones.  It is a transformative performance.  Renée embodies Judy’s vulnerability, insecurity, and sadness in a manner that is profoundly personal.  Zellweger famously starred in the movie adaptation of the musical Chicago so it shouldn’t be surprising that she actually sings here.  No, Renée doesn’t sound exactly like Judy but this was a period in the legend’s life (let’s be honest)  where she wasn’t at the top of her game.  Renée’s somewhat flawed vocals serve this production perfectly.  It’s hard not to consider the trajectory of Renée herself who received 3 Oscar nominations during the heyday of her career.  She won the award 15 years ago as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Cold Mountain in 2004.  She hasn’t been nominated since.  That will undoubtedly change this year.

Renée captures Judy’s soul.  My favorite line is when Mickey Deans greets her at a party with a cocktail.  “You can’t have the world’s greatest entertainer out here without a drink,” he says to Garland.  “Oh Frank Sinatra’s here?” she coyly replies.  Renée Zellweger effortlessly delivers the quip with an impish twinkle but it’s an external facade that glosses over raw emotion deep within.  At best, Renée’s work here is her crowning achievement.  At the very least, her acting is a compelling reason to see this picture.

09-26-19

The White Crow

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on May 20, 2019 by Mark Hobin

white_crow_ver2STARS3The White Crow could be about anything.  The cryptic title is explained in the very first frame.  It’s a Russian term for someone “unusual, extraordinary, not like others, an outsider.”  I suppose I should realize by now that color + bird = ballet movie.  Black Swan and Red Sparrow also wove the same discipline into its storyline.

The White Crow concentrates on famed dancer Rudolf Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko)  during his young adulthood.  Most acknowledge him as the greatest male ballet artist of his generation.  He was also the first major Soviet artist to defect to the West during the Cold War.  This contemplative film leisurely advances towards a captivating conclusion.  The account depicts his humble birth on a moving train in 1938, becoming a sensation with the Kirov Ballet (now known as the Mariinsky) in the late 1950s and the rising acclaim surrounding his early career.

These episodes aren’t depicted in order but rather shifting back and forth. I’ve often felt that haphazard embellishments are utilized when a director doesn’t have enough faith in his tale to tell it in a normal fashion. As if chronological order is too conventional. However, the drama’s clarity is obfuscated by this narrative device as I was often unclear whether certain events occurred earlier or later.  Rudolf Nureyev was a man with a fascinating story.  To wit, most of the focus is on a fateful 6 week trip to Paris with the Kirov Ballet in 1961.  The developments of his life would certainly make an interesting production without the stylistic devices employed here.

Written by two-time Oscar nominee David Hare (The Hours, The Reader) and directed by also twice Oscar-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes, this biopic has prestige oozing from every cinematic pore.  Hare was inspired by Julie Kavanagh’s book: Rudolf Nureyev: The Life.  Nureyev was a temperamental man and director Ralph Fiennes doesn’t attempt to make his subject likable.   Fiennes also appears in a small role as Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev’s teacher and mentor in Leningrad.  The cast also benefits from the presence of Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color), who portrays Clara Saint, a 21-year old French woman who ends up playing a key element in Nureyev’s personal revolt.

Rudolf Nureyev’s mercurial character is highlighted by first-time actor, Oleg Ivenko, a real-life Ukrainian ballet dancer.  There are brief snippets showcasing his prowess but little in the way of performances.  I wanted to see more of that talent and less brooding.  Ivenko does a good job at conveying his rebellious mood, however.  Nureyev is not a warm person but that’s not required to enjoy this movie.  The saga ultimately builds to a memorable scene with a mesmerizing climax.  While Nureyev’s ballet troupe was to continue on to London, he was being summoned back to Moscow.  The real reason is unclear but his arrogant disdain for company regulations certainly played a part.  The request was enough to send him into hysterics.  The defection is a seemingly impulsive decision that makes perfect sense.  If only it didn’t take so long to get there.  At 127 minutes, the film’s distended length doesn’t do its subject any favors.  Some thoughtful editing would improve the drama immeasurably.  Chop 20 minutes out and just get to the “pointe”.

05-16-19

Stan & Ollie

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama on January 27, 2019 by Mark Hobin

stan_and_ollie_ver4STARS3This biopic is a somber reminiscence on the legendary comedic duo.  Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) first rose to fame through in a series of silent shorts during the 1920s, the early days of Hollywood.  Their popularity would grow exponentially until they became one of the most acclaimed comedy duos ever.  Stan & Ollie isn’t about their glory days, however. The script by Academy Award-nominated writer Jeff Pope (Philomena) focuses on their later years.  This sad little feature deals with a rather low point in their history when they were no longer making films in the U.S.  There’s talk about doing a Robin Hood parody movie.  It never materializes.  It’s 1953 and the pair is on a music tour of the UK.  Way beyond their prime, they struggle to fill seats in run-down theaters and cheap hotels.  Hardy’s failing health becomes a concern.  They also bicker about the past.  A 1937 contract dispute with the studio, depicted in the intro, is dredged up in the present timeline.

There are two good reasons to see Stan & Ollie: its stars. Steve Coogan is very good as Stan Laurel. John C. Reilly is even better as Ollie Hardy.  They ascribe such sincere sympathy to their characters and invest that with tenderness.   Stan and Ollie make personal appearances and incorporate their schtick into these everyday interactions.  The public greets their shenanigans with enthusiasm.  The antics of Coogan and Reilly come across as a genuine achievement, more than just an impersonation.  The actors truly get the mannerisms down, clearly the result of work that has been well researched.  Their work matches the production.  The attention to period detail is exquisite.  The makeup beautifully supports the superior performances.  At first, the reflective tone seems to benefit this admirable effort.  Over the course of the entire runtime however, it becomes depressing.  The atmosphere is surprisingly bleak for a team known for making people laugh.  I admired Stan & Ollie but I wasn’t enthused by it.  I can’t help but think all of this meticulousness might have better served a screenplay that centered on their earlier, more celebrated era.

01-07-19

On the Basis of Sex

Posted in Biography, Drama on January 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

on_the_basis_of_sexSTARS2.5The old adage states “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Admittedly, that’s a brutal way to begin a movie review that’s mildly indifferent. It is somewhat apropos though. On the Basis of Sex is the very definition of a well-intentioned drama. It’s adequate as a superficial biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The story idealizes her as a champion for equal rights, yet it fails to captivate. The script is penned by Daniel Stiepleman, a first-time screenwriter. He just so happens to be the subject’s nephew. If you’re an avid fan in need of a reverential memoir depicting the Associate Justice’s formative years, then this should suffice.

Directed by Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, Pay It Forward), this by the numbers drama merely covers the beginning of how RBG came to be.  Slick meticulous production shows how Ruth graduated at the top of her law school class.  Unable to find a job because no law firm would hire a woman, she becomes a professor at Rutgers Law School. On the Basis of Sex mainly focuses on one tax law.  In 1970 her husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), brings a case to her attention.  It concerns Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey) a Denver man who was caring for his elderly mother.  Unmarried, he was denied a dependent-care tax deduction.  A single woman, however, would have received the advantage.  RBG saw this situation where a man had been disadvantaged, as an opportunity to bring sex-based discrimination to an appellate court.  She believes the male judges might be more sympathetic to his plight.  In this way, she anticipates that a favorable decision would open a gateway to attack more gender-based legislation.  Indeed this has been a focus of her entire career.

On the Basis of Sex is a traditional biopic, rather conservative in style for such a liberal subject.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissents with the majority ruling have only grown more forceful with time.  They’ve given rise to memes where she’s affectionately referred to her as The Notorious RBG (a riff on late rapper The Notorious B.I.G.).  As such, she has become a pop-culture icon for young liberals.  That profile of an intimidating firebrand is not on display here.  Felicity Jones sweetly radiates hope and resolve as a crusader for equal rights.  Armie Hammer is her supportive husband, an accomplished lawyer in his own right.  Martin actually comes across as more charismatic.  This is even addressed by Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), legal director of the ACLU in their mock trial practice sessions.  Those looking to see her appointment to the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton in 1993 on through her current tenure will have to wait for the sequel. I’m kidding. (Sort of.)  By focusing on a tax case, On the Basis of Sex doesn’t stir the emotions as it should.  The chronicle doesn’t seem vital enough for anyone other than her most ardent admirers in need of an idealized portrait.

01-03-19

Vice

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on January 2, 2019 by Mark Hobin

viceSTARS3I love a good transformation and there’s no other actor working today that can physically alter himself like Christian Bale.  American Psycho, The Machinist, Batman Begins, The Fighter, and American Hustle are among the most dramatic.  He looks like an entirely different person in each.  Vice just may be Christian Bale’s most incredible because of all his roles, he portrays a man with whom we are familiar.  His impersonation of Dick Cheney is pretty amazing.  Now you have to ask yourself, do I really want to see a biopic of the 46th vice president of the United States?  Let’s face it, he’s not a popular guy.  He was downright polarizing.  He drew a 63% disapproval rating 2 months after he left office in January 2009.  I was open to it as long as I’m going to watch an enjoyable film.  Vice is only mildly engaging in spurts.

As you expect, Vice is not complimentary to Dick Cheney.  It seems reverent for a while. At first,  Vice is the profile of a man driven to succeed.  Cheney was kicked out of Yale for drinking too much.  An angry pep talk from his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) slaps some sense into the ne’er do well drunk from Wyoming.  (This is the 3rd feature that Adams and Bale have done together following The Fighter and American Hustle.)  Cheney becomes a congressional intern and starts working for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell).  They become close and when Rumsfeld is appointed Secretary of Defense under President Ford, Dick becomes Chief of Staff.  The presentation of his rise to power by failing upward is a bit glib.  This is from the mind of director Adam McKay (Talladega Nights, The Big Short) after all.  He finds the humor in Cheney’s tenure.  A fateful meeting with a young Antonin Scalia clues him into a legal doctrine called Unitary Executive Theory, which means that anything the president does is legal simply by virtue of his title.  This won’t come into play until years later when George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) desperately wants Cheney to be his Vice President.  Side note: As authentic and nuanced as Christian Bale is, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell are complete caricatures of their real-life counterparts more suited to an SNL skit than a serious biopic.  Anyways, Cheney will concede to Bush’s request under the conditions that he grant him extended powers which oversee major departments.  Bush agrees.  Then 9/11 happens.

How fair and accurate is Vice?  The movie begins with a jokey disclaimer that it’s “as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in recent history.  But we did our f—ing best.”  That essentially absolves them of presenting the truth.  That’s going to (rightfully) annoy a lot of people right from the get-go.  If you have the stomach for politics, it’s satisfying to a point.  That playful attitude permeates the film and it honestly helps enliven a portrait that few were demanding.  As decisions are made and we see the political process play out, Vice gradually becomes the denunciation of a Vice President who used the attacks of 9/11 to justify a war with Iraq.  This is a controversial period in American history.  He didn’t do it alone.  Adam McKay’s screenplay also wants us to condemn the entire American political system that allowed his Machiavellian rise to power.  These events led to the justification of torture on detainees and unprecedented surveillance by the U.S. Government on its own citizens.  Yet it continues to elevate him as a family man who loved his daughters Liz (Lily Rabe) and Mary Cheney (Alison Pill ) unconditionally.  The respect of Cheney in his private life, when juxtaposed with vilifying of the man in his public life, drives this comedic drama. The point of view can be a bit contradictory at times.  I suppose that gives it a semblance of balance.  It humanizes a man before eventually driving you to hate him. Given the subject matter, Vice does its best to both entertain and stir the pot.  Now I ask my earlier question again, do you really want to watch a biopic about Dick Cheney?  Unfortunately Vice doesn’t warrant a strong ‘yes’ to that question.

12-17-18

Mary Queen of Scots

Posted in Biography, Drama, History on December 27, 2018 by Mark Hobin

mary_queen_of_scots_ver4STARS3It really is a testament to the talent and charisma of Saoirse Ronan that Mary Queen of Scots is still worthwhile viewing.  The star is bloody good as the titular heroine.  Her achievement kept me enrapt.  I can’t say the same for the rest of the picture.

After the death of her husband Francis II, King of France, Mary Stuart returns to her native Scotland.  Both Scotland and England are under the realm of Mary’s cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).  Yet she asserts her claim to the English throne.  Elizabeth regards Mary’s actions a direct threat to her ruling authority.  The largely Protestant government there has outlawed Catholic mass.  Mary preaches tolerance of both religions.  She immediately incurs the wrath of Protestant cleric John Knox (David Tennant) who is her vocal critic.

The colorful ensemble boosts a flawed production.  Diverse casting choices include Gemma Chan as Elizabeth Hardwick, Ismael Cruz Córdova as David Rizzio, and Adrian Lester as Lord Randolph.  These aren’t historically accurate decisions, but they distinguish this interpretation as a contemporary tale, so there’s that.  Naturally beautiful Margot Robbie is cast as the heavily made up Queen Elizabeth I.  She is suffering from smallpox under what looks like pounds and pounds of foundation. Director Josie Rourke cuts back and forth between the two monarchs to contrast their differing points of view.  Robbie is very good too. Her appearance pops up here and there, but this is Ronan’s movie.  As ancient history (16th century), nothing I discuss here should be considered a spoiler, but the two don’t even share the screen until the very end.  Even then, history teaches us they never even met at all.

I am a sucker for a stately well-done period piece. This isn’t it.   History buffs are likely to go into conniptions over the inaccuracies and even fans of tawdry soap operas are likely to find the events questionable.   I won’t get into details but certain developments surrounding Mary Queen of Scots’ second husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) compelled me to research their veracity. Some of this is pure fantasy at worst and loose conjecture at best.  The costumes are sumptuous. The production design is heavenly and as mentioned earlier, Saoirse Ronan anchors it all with a captivating performance.  I say if you’re already obsessed with biographies about monarchs, this should satiate your fix.  Although the timing of this release couldn’t be worse.  There’s already an irreverent film about a queen currently playing at the multiplex right now (The Favourite).   It’s so much better.

12-18-18