ROCKETMAN (2019) Rocks

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The best part about ROCKETMAN (2019) is that its magical flamboyant style captures the essence of its subject, Elton John, all the while telling a story that is anything but.

The real Elton John is on record as telling the film’s producers who were pushing for a PG-13 rated movie that he hadn’t lived a PG-13 life. The film is rated R and is better for it. This is a no holds barred look at one of rock and roll’s most eccentric performers.

Nearly everything about this movie works.

ROCKETMAN is the life story of Elton John (Taron Egerton). Starting with his troubled childhood where as a young boy named Reginald Dwight he had to deal with parents who didn’t show him affection and worse, abused him emotionally. In spite of them, he becomes a young piano prodigy, and as he grows older he becomes a fan of rock and roll. He also realizes that he is gay.

He develops a strong friendship with songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), which is a good thing, because Reggie’s strength is music, not words. His collaboration with Bernie is extremely successful, and once he chooses his stage name, Elton John, there’s no looking back.

The two sign a record deal and travel to the United States for an inaugural tour that instantly catapults John to superstardom. He never looks back. But fame has its price, and drug use, friends’ betrayals, and a family that never is interested in loving or supporting him, take their toll on John until he has a major collapse. But life goes on, true friends like Bernie Taupin never abandon him, and he’s able in 1983 to record another hit “I’m Still Standin” which is symbolic of his victory over the pitfalls of fame.

I loved ROCKETMAN.

Director Dexter Fletcher pushes all the right buttons. The film captures so much of the pain of John’s life and shows how he managed to succeed in spite of these obstacles. There are some truly cinematic scenes in this one. Probably the best sequence in the film is the concert at the Troubadour club in LA. Not only does the scene recreate what John accomplished on that day, on August 25, 1970, but it’s also the moment the film explodes with life. You could feel the theater audience mirroring the emotion of the concert audience in the movie.

There’s also a shot of the neighborhood surrounding the Troubadour that stood out because it looked so authentic, and it turns out that it was. Fletcher took stock 35 mm footage of the street and simply cleaned it up digitally. It’s only a few seconds of film, but it adds to the authenticity of the movie.

I loved the style of the film, which is pretty much a musical fantasy intertwined with a hard-hitting bio pic, which captures the essence of Elton John perfectly.

The acting is phenomenal. Taron Egerton, who before ROCKETMAN was known for THE KINGSMAN movies, EDDIE THE EAGLE (2015) and for his voice work in SING (2016), knocks it out of the park as Elton John. He completely loses himself in the role and becomes the rock and roll icon. It’s the best work I’ve seen Egerton do yet. Considering the big names that were originally associated with this project, actors like Tom Hardy, James McAvoy, and Daniel Radcliffe, I can’t imagine anyone else doing as good a job as Egerton does here. And, he does all his own singing! It’s an exceptional performance.

Jamie Bell is also very good as John’s best friend and songwriter Bernie Taupin. In a world full of insincere people, Taupin’s sincerity sticks out and is welcomed throughout. Bell plays Bernie as a man who loved John very much, but who was friend enough to tell the singer that he didn’t love him in “that way.” I’ve seen Bell in other movies, such as his role as the Thing in FANTASTIC FOUR (2015), and he was also in the exceptional actioner SNOWPIERCER (2013), but like Egerton, this is the best performance I’ve seen Bell deliver.

Likewise, Richard Madden delivers a strong performance as John’s promoter and love interest John Reid, who is pretty much symbolic of all that goes wrong with John’s life in L.A.

And Bryce Dallas Howard is cold and endlessly annoying as John’s mother, as is Steven Mackintosh as his even colder and distant father. Their scenes with their son are among the most emotionally charged in the film, especially the one where John after he has become famous visits his dad and has to suffer through watching the man pour on the love to John’s younger stepbrothers while continually dissing John’s career, showing no interest in it whatsoever. When he asks John to sign one of his albums, he points out that it shouldn’t be made out to him, but to one of his friends, forcing John to cross out “To Dad” and instead write the friend’s name. Mackintosh was similarly annoying on the show LUTHER (2010) where he played DCI Ian Reed and became a real thorn in the side of Idris Elba’s main character Luther in that superior TV series.

I also loved the screenplay by Lee Hall. Not only does it tell Elton John’s life story in a truly satisfying way, it’s also chock full of memorable lines of dialogue. One of my favorite lines in the film is when a fellow rocker gives John this advice, “You’ve got to kill the person you were born as in order to become the person you were born to be.” Which is in many cases true.

Likewise, when John says, “Real love is hard to come by. So you find a way to cope without it,” also smacks of truth.

And there are many more.

And of course the film benefits from the music of Elton John, as his songs pepper the story throughout, with so many of the lyrics capturing pivotal points in John’s life.

About the only drawback I had with ROCKETMAN is I thought at times it pulled back from moments it should have stayed on. Things happen, often emotional and upsetting things, and then it would be on to the next item, rather than lingering on the trauma felt by the iconic rocker.

But other than that, I loved ROCKETMAN. With so many things going for it, and led by a superior performance by Taron Egerton, it’s one of my favorite movies of the year so far.

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HOTEL MUMBAI (2019) – Brutal Re-Telling of Mumbai Terrorist Attack

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In 2008, terrorists stormed the famed Taj Hotel in Mumbai, India, killing and wounding hundreds of people. With only a miniscule police force outside the hotel, and special forces units hours away, it fell upon the hotel staff to protect the hotel’s guests. HOTEL MUMBAI (2019) tells their story.

Unfortunately, it also tells the story of the actual terrorists, as the film attempts to point out that the terrorists were young men who were obviously duped by their unseen leader to carry out these vicious attacks. This part of the movie, although minor, doesn’t work as well as the rest.

The best part of HOTEL MUMBAI is the stories it tells of the victims hiding inside the hotel.

Arjun (Dev Patel) is married, has a young son, and his wife is pregnant with their next child. He works at the hotel, and money is tight, and so he desperately needs this job. When he forgets his shoes, he’s scolded by the head chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and told to go home, but he begs to stay, and Oberoi relents and offers him a spare pair of shoes in his office.

David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) are a multicultural couple. He’s American and she’s Indian. They’re at the hotel with their baby and baby’s nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).

Once the terrorists storm the hotel, head chef Oberoi is the one who pretty much organizes the resistance, helping to move as many guests as possible into the most secure area of the hotel.

As the terrorists move freely about the building, with special forces hours away, the story becomes more harrowing as the guests gradually begin to run out of options. There are only so many places they can hide, and the gunmen, armed with assault rifles and grenades, continue their onslaught with frightening persistence.

The scenes of death and carnage in HOTEL MUMBAI are brutal and difficult to watch. Some have suggested that these scenes border on the exploitative. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that watching the gunmen march boldly through the hotel killing innocent people indiscriminately, taking their time about it because law enforcement was nowhere in sight, was wince inducing. But it also bolsters the story. The film makes clear the awful fate that awaits the guests if they’re spotted by the terrorists.

HOTEL MUMBAI works best when following the plight of the survivors, the frightened guests, and the brave hotel staff who did their best to protect them. Writer/director Anthony Maras and screenwriter John Collee flesh out the characters in a relatively brief time. I really cared for all of these folks, which made the movie that more effective.

And the cast also helps. Oscar nominee Dev Patel comes closest to playing a lead character, as the main story is framed around Arjun. Patel, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for LION (2016), and who also starred in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008) and CHAPPIE (2015), is as expected excellent here. Arjun is both a sympathetic and very brave character, putting his life on the line for the hotel guests.

Armie Hammer, who we just saw in ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018) where he played Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband Martin, is very good here as David. The scenes where he makes his way back up to his room to rescue his baby and Sally are extremely compelling.

Nazanin Boniadi is equally as good as David’s wife Zahra. She too has to brave the bloody corridors of the hotel to find her family. And Tilda Cobham-Hervey, who spends most of the movie protecting Zahra’s and David’s baby is excellent as the terrified Sally.

I also enjoyed Jason Isaacs, who recently played Captain Gabriel Lorca on STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18), and who also starred in the impressive horror movie A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016). Here he plays a Russian operative named Vasili who’s a guest at the hotel and befriends Zahra once the terrorists attack. Not only does he get some of the best lines in the film, but he’s the only character in the movie inside the hotel with any kind of military experience.

My favorite performance in the film however probably belongs to Anupam Kher as head chef Oberoi. He makes Oberoi the ultimate professional, and when he’s tasked with protecting the guests, he accepts the challenge and does what he can. What I particularly liked about this character and Kher’s performance is that he doesn’t suddenly become an action hero. He’s a chef, and what he can do to help these people is limited. The help he can offer is based on his knowledge of the hotel, knowing where the safest place is to keep the guests, and also his cool demeanor as head chef serves him well in keeping the people calm.

Kher was also memorable in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) and THE BIG SICK (2016). He’s a character actor who makes his mark every time I see him in a movie, even if he’s playing a relatively small role.

As I said, HOTEL MUMBAI also portrays the terrorists as young men pretty much brainwashed by their unseen leader who speaks to them on the phone and coldly encourages them to kill as many people as possible, all in the name of Allah. While the film should be commended for taking this approach— it’s always a good idea to present as many sides to a story as possible— it didn’t really win me over. Watching them brutally murder people, I didn’t really want to know anything about them, nor did I feel sympathy for them. In fact, I probably would have enjoyed the movie more had it not featured any background on these killers at all. Intellectually, I understood the approach, but emotionally I rebelled against it.

The film does a better job pointing out that the Muslim terrorists do not represent all Muslims. Zahra is also Muslim, and her confrontation with one of the terrorists, one of the most riveting scenes in the movie, is symbolic of this difference.

The other subplot that also really works is the small security force which realizes that even though they are outmanned and outgunned, they have to do something to fight back, and so they venture back into the hotel in an attempt to commandeer the security cameras so they can at least get a fix on the terrorists’ positions inside the hotel. Theirs is also a harrowing story.

HOTEL MUMBAI is a riveting and oftentimes disturbing re-telling of the deadly terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel. I hesitate to say I enjoyed this film because it’s not a comfortable movie to sit through, but it succeeds in telling its edge-of-your seat story of a small group of hotel guests and staff who banded together to fight for their survival against a merciless group of vicious gunmen.

While I may not have “enjoyed” it, I highly recommend it.

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FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019) – Wrestling Movie Fun, Comedic and Inspiring

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Not only is FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019) a lot of fun, not only is it a “feel good” movie with an inspiring story to tell, but it has a lot to say about those who fight for their dreams and lose, and who in turn use their talents to teach others, the message being they haven’t really lost at all as they are the reason others win.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is based on the true story of a family from Norwich, England who lived and breathed wrestling. As Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia Knight (Lena Heady) tell it, their lives were going nowhere when they met, and as other people find religion, they found wrestling, and they made it a centerpiece of their family.

Their oldest son tried to make it professionally but failed. He couldn’t handle his failure and ended up in prison. The story focuses on their daughter Saraya (Florence Pugh) and their younger son Zak (Jack Lowden) who are primed and ready to try out for the WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment. Saraya is chosen, while Zak is not.

The film then follows Saraya on her trip to the United States, where she trains under the grueling coach Hutch (Vince Vaughn) who works her and the other recruits incredibly hard, so much so that Saraya comes to believe that she won’t make it. During this time, she chooses her wrestling name, Paige. Meanwhile, back in England, Zak struggles with his sister’s success and his own life, as he increasingly views himself as a failure.

Until one day when his older brother is finally released from prison. He tells Zak that he always knew Saraya would be the success that he himself couldn’t be because she had something he didn’t. When Zak asks his brother what that something was, he points to Zak and says: you. And it’s at that moment Zak realizes that all the work he does teaching wrestling to the neighborhood kids means something, and it has just as much value as going pro in wrestling. And as Saraya points out to her brother, “You’re teaching a blind boy how to wrestle. Who does that?” Once Zak comes to understand the value of his true talent, he turns towards helping his sister achieve her own professional dreams.

While FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is the story of both Knight siblings, its main focus is really on Saraya, aka Paige, as she’s the one member of the family who did succeed as a pro in wrestling. As such, most of the movie falls on the shoulders of Florence Pugh who plays Paige, and Pugh does a great job. She’s known for her work in LADY MACBETH (2016), she was in the Liam Neeson actioner THE COMMUTER (2018), and she had the lead in the AMC mini-series THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL (2018). Here, Pugh does a fine job capturing Paige’s feelings as an outsider, as someone who feels she doesn’t belong, which is what drove her to wrestling in the first place, that it gave her the ability to block out real life troubles while she was active in the ring. It also gave her something to belong to.

Jack Lowden is very good as Zak Knight as well, although the film does tend to focus on him less than Pugh. He plays Zak as a man who is nearly crushed by the failure of his dreams. Indeed, one of the most painful scenes in the movie is when Hutch tells Zak point-blank to give up, that it’s not going to happen for him. And Lowden is just as good later when Zak experiences the light bulb moment that his work with the youth in his neighborhood is his real talent.

Nick Frost , who has co-starred with Simon Pegg in British comedies like THE WORLD’S END (2013), HOT FUZZ (2007), and SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) is as expected very funny as the lively patriarch of the Knight family. He gets most of the best laugh-out-loud moments in the film, like when he answers the phone and doesn’t believe he’s really talking to Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson on the other line, when in fact he is. But he also enjoys some key dramatic moments as well, like when he takes Paige aside and tells her that it’s okay if she doesn’t want to continue training for the WWE, that he’s not going to force her to do something she doesn’t want to do.

Lena Headey rounds out the main players as Knight matriarch Julia. She works well with Nick Frost, and the two play a couple whose passion for wrestling is plain to see, and as such, it’s easy to understand how their children are so inspired to participate in the sport.

I have to admit. I’ve never been a Vince Vaughn fan,  but he’s really good here as wrestling coach Hutch. Sure, you can argue that you’ve seen this character countless times before, that he’s just another variation of Mickey (Burgess Meredith) from the ROCKY movies, but there’s an added element that makes him stand out, and it’s this added element which Vaughn nails. Hutch’s story ties in to Zak’s, as he too once had his dreams shattered, and he too found that his true talent was in helping and teaching others to achieve theirs. And there’s a key moment near the end, when Hutch gives Paige a quick wink and then walks away. He’s not about sharing in her glory. What drives him is inspiring other to achieve theirs.

Of course, the biggest name attached to FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is Dwayne Johnson, who does appear as himself in the movie, and while he has a couple of memorable scenes, this really isn’t a Dwayne Johnson movie. It’s an ensemble piece, led by Florence Pugh.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY has a first-rate script by writer/director Stephen Merchant. While the main plot comes right out of any ROCKY movie— underdog makes it big— the tone of this film is anything but, as the humor is all very British, and as such, you’ll spend a lot of time laughing throughout the movie, which comes as no surprise. Merchant worked as a writer for both the British and American versions of the TV show THE OFFICE.

Merchant’s also an actor, and he appears here in a memorable supporting role as the father of Zak’s girlfriend. Merchant also starred as Caliban in LOGAN (2017) with Hugh Jackman

Here, the script is lively and comedic, and better yet, it does a fine job tying its themes together, its stories of youth fighting for their dreams, of how to react when you fail, and the value of teaching others, and how that’s also something that not a lot of people can do, and if you have this gift, use it.

Merchant also succeeds as a director here. FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY wastes no time getting into the heart of its story, as within the first few minutes of the film the audience has already joined Zak and Paige on their quest to become pro-wrestlers. The pace remains brisk throughout, and the film does a comprehensive job telling the story of the Knight family, people who at the end of the day you are glad you met and spent a couple of hours with.

The messages that come out of this film are good ones as they have less to do with competition and more to do with how to be a winner, as it’s not about stomping on those around you to reach the top but lifting up those around you to reach the top together. People do not succeed alone. You need others to help you, and this film is both about those who give help and those who receive it, and it shows how both groups are intertwined. People who receive help give it back, and vice versa. No one gets without giving.

I really enjoyed FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY. This one’s not getting a lot of hype, but it’s definitely a movie worth checking out at the theater.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY fights the good fight, and its message on the value of teaching and inspiring others to achieve their dreams is a welcomed one in this day and age which all too often glorifies a winning-at-the-expense-of others mentality.

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THE FAVOURITE (2018) – A Period Piece With An Edge

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Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in THE FAVOURITE (2018).

THE FAVOURITE (2018), the latest film by acclaimed director Yorgos Lanthimos, is on many critics’ lists as one of the best films of 2018. While I liked this one well enough, I wouldn’t call it my favorite. Heh-heh.

THE FAVOURITE is a period piece with an edge. It takes place in 18th century England, and is as raunchy and vulgar as a modern-day R-rated comedy, only it presents these raw elements with much more dignity and grace.

In THE FAVOURITE, the miserable Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules England with a depressed demeanor, and she’s melancholy because of both physical ailments like gout and emotional ones, like the fact that all her children have died. Her friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) takes care of her and helps her with both her physical maladies and with the running of the country.  Lady Sarah has a keen political mind, and she has the Queen’s ear, and so many of the decisions regarding England’s involvement in its war with France are made by Lady Sarah.

And as we come to find out, these two women are more than just friends. They’re lovers.

When a young woman named Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the castle, she presents herself to Lady Sarah as her cousin, a woman who had been a lady but due to the fault of her father, had lost favor and had become a servant. She arrives at the castle seeking work, and Lady Sarah hires her as her personal servant.

Abigail is an enterprising young woman, and she soon works herself into the favor of Queen Anne, so much so that her presence and relationship with the queen becomes a threat to Lady Sarah. At this point, the story becomes a duel between the two women to see who will ultimately gain favor with the queen, and the only rules here are that there are no rules.

There’s certainly a lot to like about THE FAVOURITE. Probably my favorite part of the movie is that it never deteriorates into silly comedy at the expense of its story. While there is much that is funny that happens in this movie, when Abigail declares war on Lady Sarah, the ensuing battle is dark and nasty rather than upbeat and goofy. The story is still good for a few chuckles at this point, but the characters and their actions remain true to the plot.

Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos, known for his provocative and offbeat movies like THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017) and THE LOBSTER (2015), has made a much more straightforward film here with THE FAVOURITE.  I enjoyed THE LOBSTER more than THE FAVOURITE, mostly because it was such an unusual film.

While THE FAVOURITE delivers in that it successfully tells this story of these three women, it didn’t pique my interest quite the same way THE LOBSTER did. That being said, Lanthimos includes enough creative camerawork here to put his stamp on this one.

Interestingly enough, he didn’t write the screenplay here. The script was written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. It’s a good screenplay. The dialogue is first-rate, and it’s quick and snappy, and the characters are all fleshed out. What interested me the least here was the actual story. While I was intrigued by the way Abigail and Lady Sarah went about their business in trying to impress the queen, I ultimately didn’t care all that much. Abigail is a cunning manipulative character, and while Lady Sarah is much more honest, she’s also cutthroat and abrasive.  So, while I enjoyed watching a story about these two beguiling characters, I can’t say that I liked them very much, and so ultimately they both could have failed, and I wouldn’t have cared.

Director Lanthimos has been hailed for getting the most out of his actors in THE FAVOURITE, and I would have to agree. The performances in this movie are all outstanding, from the three female leads to the supporting male characters.

I continue to be a huge Emma Stone fan. I’ve enjoyed her in nearly everything she’s done, even those awful Andrew Garfield SPIDER-MAN movies. While I enjoyed her recent performances in BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) and LA LA LAND (2016) more, she is still excellent here as Abigail, creating in this character a spirited enterprising woman who knows what she wants and what to do in order to get it. And we see her maltreated by enough men to feel empathy for her when she goes for it.

Rachel Weisz makes for an indomitable and focused Lady Sarah who throughout most of the movie is less sympathetic than Abigail, but that changes as the stakes get higher and the manipulations grow darker.

Olivia Colman also delivers a noteworthy performance as the long-suffering Queen Anne. The queen’s emotions and behaviors are all over the place, as she goes from happy one minute to shouting in anger the next, and Colman captures her unpredictability masterfully.

The supporting male characters are just as impressive. Nicholas Hoult nearly steals the show with a dashing performance as Robert Harley, a member of Parliament who is politically opposed to Lady Sarah. He’s mean and he’s manipulative, and as he bullies Abigail to help him, she acquiesces because his positions frequently align with hers. Hoult has been very enjoyable as Beast in the re-booted X-MEN films, and his performance here as Harley is even better.

Joe Alwyn is also memorable as Masham, the young man who is fascinated by Abigail and pursues her even as she continually proves herself to be his superior. Alwyn is having a very good year, as he has also been in BOY ERASED (2018) and OPERATION FINALE (2018).

And James Smith gives perhaps the most restrained performance in the movie, as the respected and honorable Godolphin.

I can’t say that I enjoyed the ending to THE FAVOURITE all that much. It’s not a bad ending, and it succeeds in making its point, but it seems to lack the dagger effect which stabbed at the rest of the movie.

I enjoyed THE FAVOURITE for what it was, an R-rated period piece showing that women can be just as devious as men in the world of politics, and it tells this tale of debauchery and intrigue in a raunchy bawdy manner that will have you chuckling far more than wincing.

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VICE (2018) – Ambitious and Somehow Comedic Look into Life and Legacy of Dick Cheney

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Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in VICE (2018)

Everything you need to know about the tone of VICE (2018) is handed to you in the film’s opening minutes when the words “Based on a true story” appear on-screen, followed by a disclaimer citing that Dick Cheney is one of the world’s most secretive leaders, followed by a final line “But we tried our f*cking best.”

Yep, VICE, a movie about Dick Cheney’s rise to power and what he did with it, is presented here largely as—- a comedy. And believe me, you’ll laugh, even as you cringe at Cheney’s view of power and his ensuing actions wielding it.

This comes as no surprise because VICE was written and directed by Adam McKay, the same man who brought us THE BIG SHORT (2015), his brilliant comedic take on the U.S. mortgage crisis in 2005, which somehow got us to laugh about corruption in banks and the housing market.

Here McKay takes his wild and witty style and applies it to the story of Dick Cheney, one of the most unfunny and serious figures in politics in recent memory. The idea of turning this guy’s story into a comedy seems ludicrous.  It’s certainly a bizarre marriage.  As such, some of it works.  Some of it doesn’t.  Most of it does.

VICE is also blessed with an A-list cast that includes Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, and Sam Rockwell. Bale’s amazing transformation into Dick Cheney, a role for which the actor gained forty pounds, is reminiscent of the work Gary Oldman did last year as Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR (2017). Both actors disappear into their roles. When Bale is onscreen, you’ll forget you’re watching a movie and believe you’re seeing the real Dick Cheney.

VICE introduces us to Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) in the 1960s when he seems lost and without ambition. He has a drinking problem, he’s been kicked out of college, and is working a thankless job putting up telephone wires. His girlfriend Lynne (Amy Adams) gives him an ultimatum: either change now or she’s leaving him. He tells her he won’t let her down again, and according to this movie, he doesn’t.

Cheney makes his way to Washington D.C. as a Congressional intern, and he latches on to the charismatic Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). He even becomes a Republican because he wants to be like Rumsfeld. Cheney works hard, and soon he’s Rumsfeld’s right hand man. The two work for the Nixon administration, and then the Ford administration, with big plans for the future, but their plans are derailed when Ford loses the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.

But in 1980 Ronald Reagan is elected, and the two men are back in the White House again. After Reagan and Bush, Cheney himself eyes the presidency, but because his daughter Mary is gay, he decides he doesn’t want to put her through the scrutiny that would go along with his seeking the nomination on the conservative Republican ticket, and so he chooses not to run, for all intents and purposes in his mind, ending his career in politics.

But in 2000 George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) seeks out Cheney to be is running mate, a decision Cheney is not comfortable with at first, but then he begins to look ahead, and he realizes that as Vice President especially under an inexperienced political leader like Bush, he’d be in the unique position of wielding incredible power and doing it all while flying under the radar, covered by the protective veil of the vice -presidency, traditionally a “nothing” position.

Which is exactly what he did.

Adam McKay’s screenplay for VICE is very similar to his screenplay for THE BIG SHORT, in that it breaks the fourth wall, uses all kinds of weird and wacky ideas to tell its story, and become extremely creative in breaking down complex situations and explaining them to the audience.

For example, the narrator here, a man named Kurt (Jesse Plemons) about halfway through the film asks the audience that they’re probably wondering who he is and what his connection is to Dick Cheney, to which he says he’ll explain later. And he does, and his relationship with Cheney is quite unique, and worthy of both a dark laugh and a tear. It makes for very clever storytelling.

This style worked better in THE BIG SHORT mostly because the complexities of the mortgage industry lent themselves better to the over-the-top style of having various people break the fourth wall to explain things to the audience.  While government is also complex, the perception of it is that it’s not as much a mystery as the banking industry, and so the various explanations of what’s going on inside the inner workings of the government are not quite as astute.

But you can’t blame McKay for trying. His efforts here are pretty impressive.  I mean, how can you fault a movie that at one point has Dick and Lynne Cheney speaking to each other in Shakespearean sonnets? Or that pulls off the bold stunt of rolling fake credits midway through the movie after Cheney accepts his political career is over, only to pull back when suddenly the phone rings and it’s George W. Bush on the line?

The comedic strokes used here by McKay are a lot of fun, but to be honest, the juxtaposition between the fun McKay is having with the film and his subject, the dour Dick Cheney, is quite jarring. Part of this is McKay’s fault, because the other strength of his screenplay is he nails all the serious stuff. His interpretation of Dick Cheney’s reign as vice president is right on the money, so much so that at times I wished he had played this one straight and just told the darn story.

I’m sure Christian Bale will be noticed come Oscar time. It’s a fabulous performance which goes above and beyond the obvious make-up job on him to look just like Dick Cheney.  He captures Cheney’s mannerisms and way of speaking as well.  But even just doing this would only make his performance a caricature, and Bale goes beyond that. As best he can, he gets inside Cheney’s head and motivations.  With a minimum of words, he conveys to the audience what it is Cheney is thinking and feeling.  It’s a great performance by Bale all around.

I also really enjoyed Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush. Like Bale with Cheney, Rockwell also captures Bush’s mannerisms and style of speaking, and also  like Bale, he goes beyond the caricature. He doesn’t play Bush like a hapless buffoon. He plays him the way he’s often been described by people who know him, like someone you’d want to have a beer with, even while disagreeing with him.

Rockwell definitely makes Bush green, a man who desperately wants Cheney’s experience by his side, and who seems only too comfortable with all the changes Cheney made to the vice presidency, like having additional offices in the House of Representatives and at the Pentagon, seeing National Security briefings before the president, and even being the one to assemble the cabinet when Bush first won the election.

Amy Adams adds fine support as Lynne Cheney, the woman who saw Cheney as her ticket to success, since she knew in the 1960s that women had no future in politics, so she did all she could to support and help her husband achieve his political dreams.  Likewise, Steve Carrell is excellent as Donald Rumsfeld.

VICE ends the way it begins, with moments that define the entire movie. At the end of VICE, Cheney is being interviewed about his years as vice president, and he turns to the camera and breaks the fourth wall as he addresses the audience and says he’s not going to apologize for his actions.  He says he was elected to serve the people, and that’s exactly what he did, in order to keep them safe. In effect, he vowed to do whatever it took to prevent another terrorist attack from happening during his watch.

The fact that his policies enabled the U.S. government to overstep its bounds in terms of surveillance, torture, holding suspects indefinitely without allowing them access to lawyers, and other human rights abuses meant little to him. He was doing what he believed needed to be done. And right after 9/11, most Americans agreed with him.

But what they didn’t agree with was the administration’s position on Iraq. When it was proven that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and was not connected to 9/11, people asked and rightly so, then what the heck are we doing in Iraq? Why aren’t we going after Osama Bin Laden?

The movie makes its opinion clear. Folks like Rumsfeld and Cheney wanted to attack Iraq long before 9/11 for reasons that had to do with oil.

Our current president, Trump, likes to blame faulty intelligence agencies for the Iraq weapons of mass destruction snafu, but the film also makes clear that our intelligence agencies got it right: they knew there were no weapons of mass destruction, but Cheney ignored their briefs and latched onto one obscure report that listed one terrorist living in Iraq.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) addressed the United Nations when told to do so by George W. Bush, outlying the U.S. belief that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction and terrorists, and mentioned this terrorist by name, several times, it gave the guy name recognition, and he went on to gain considerable power in Iraq and eventually formed an organization known as —- ISIS.

The scene where Powell addresses the United Nations is one of the best in the movie, as it’s evident how uncomfortable Powell  was having to say things he pretty much knew were not true. Powell has called this speech the worst moment in his life.

And there’s an after-credit scene as well, which also hits the mark. A group of people are being interviewed by a reporter, when one man says he’s upset that this film has a liberal bias, and the man next to him takes offense. They get into an argument, Trump is mentioned, and suddenly there’s a physical brawl.

The point? Well, here we are today, and things are arguably worse, and for right or wrong, the way things are today started because of the policies of one Dick Cheney.

VICE is a very ambitious movie, both light and serious, although strangely it’s mostly light. A lot of it plays as if Michael Moore had decided to direct a feature film rather than a documentary. That being said, it doesn’t really diss on Dick Cheney or George W. Bush.

And that just might be the film’s greatest strength, that in spite of the harm which the film states Cheney has caused, it finds in its heart humor and makes us laugh, and in doing so, portrays Cheney as nothing short of an honorable man.

Will this be how history views Cheney? Time will tell.

—END___

 

 

 

 

THE FRONT RUNNER (2018) – Story of Gary Hart’s 1988 Downfall Asks Questions Relevant Today

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THE FRONT RUNNER (2018), which recounts the fateful three weeks where 1988 presidential front-runner Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) saw his chances for becoming president derailed by an extramarital affair, is at its best when asking questions that are still relevant today.

In 1984, Gary Hart finished second to Walter Mondale in the Democratic primary, done in as shown in the movie during a debate where Mondale used the catchphrase from a popular Wendy’s commercial, saying that whenever he listened to Hart discuss his ideas, he felt he had to ask, “Where’s the beef?” I saw that debate in 1984, and the line worked. Mondale, of course, was trounced by Ronald Reagan in the general election.

So, in 1988, Hart emerged as the popular choice among Democrats, and early on was the clear front-runner.

Hugh Jackman plays Hart as a candidate who is all about ideas, and as described by his staff in the movie, his gift is that he can break down complicated ideas and help people understand them. It’s easy to see Hart as a successful U.S. president.

Hart also believed his private life was exactly that- private, and the press had no business knowing what went on in his bedroom. He felt so strongly about this that when pressed by reporters who continually hounded him due to rumors about extramarital affairs, he famously challenged them to follow him around, claiming they wouldn’t find anything, that he was a pretty boring guy.

The reporters did just that, and they photographed him with a woman Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) who obviously wasn’t his wife, and who appeared to stay the night with him. When more photos surfaced from unnamed sources, the firestorm which followed so engulfed Hart and his family that he found he had no choice but to withdraw from the election.

At the end of the movie, Hart makes a dramatic speech after his withdrawal, saying that the current climate of press hounds was only going to get worse, and it was no surprise that the best and the brightest avoided politics because of it, and if it didn’t change, worse candidates would emerge.

The screenplay by Matt Bai, Jay Carson, and director Jason Reitman asks questions that we are still discussing today, and covers such topics as the role of the press, the expectations of a political leader, the way men treat women, and the effect of adultery. It’s a complex script that asks questions without providing answers, mostly because we are still searching for answers even today.

The press is shown doing its job diligently. The press pool reporters genuinely like Gary Hart and feel uncomfortable asking questions about his personal life, but yet, some of them feel obligated to persist. The press is also shown camped outside Hart’s home, not allowing his wife or daughter to leave in private.  They’re aggressive and harassing. Yet, if the reporters hadn’t done their job, the story would not have come out.

In one conversation, veteran reporters relay the story of how Lyndon Johnson assembled all the White House reporters and told them lots of women would be coming in and out of his place, and he expected the same kind of discretion on their part which they had shown Jack Kennedy, and that’s what they did. These same reporters acknowledge that things are different in 1988, and they don’t understand why, but they know that it is different. If candidates are sleeping around, it’s now their job to expose them, because if they don’t some other news outlet will do it and earn better readership or ratings.

The women in the film, in 1988, did not have much of a voice, but they do express their outrage, upset that the male reporters aren’t angry with Hart over his treatment of women and that they aren’t being more aggressive to uncover the story.

In one of the better sequences in the movie, Hart staffer Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) spends time with Donna Rice and empathizes with her plight. She later points out how alone Rice is, that after this, her life will never be the same, that she doesn’t have the massive staff of volunteers supporting her like Hart does, that her life in effect has been ruined by a simple affair, while Hart’s life will continue.

Regarding Gary Hart, he is not shown here as a man who blatantly disrespects women, with the exception, of course, of his wife, since he was being unfaithful to her. But he’s not making derogatory remarks about the female anatomy or sexually assaulting them. He simply doesn’t see that it’s anyone’s business what he does in the privacy of his bedroom, or nor does he believe that his affairs affect anyone else except himself and his family, most likely because for years this was how things worked.

He seemed to be oblivious to the hypocrisy of his statements on morality and his personal behavior.

Director Jason Reitman lets this story unfold naturally, and his camera allows the audience to follow things along as if they are part of the campaign. In fact, even though Hart is the main character, the many members of his staff and the press pool make up the bulk of this movie and pretty much move the story along.

The acting is fine throughout. Hugh Jackman is excellent as Gary Hart, and while he does capture the politician’s mannerisms, his performance is superior to a caricature. He makes Hart a very tragic figure. He means well, he has ideas that are poised to make the country a better place, and he’s in a position with a public that really likes him to win the election, and yet he seems to be stuck in a prior time where reporters let things slide. Had he paid more attention and realized the press was emerging into a different animal in 1988, he might have been able to save his campaign, and the country would have seen a President Hart, but that’s not what happened.

Of course, some may argue, that it’s a good thing that he didn’t become president because he’s a womanizer. Which is another question the movie addresses, which is, does this kind of behavior even matter? Do Americans care who presidents sleep with? These questions are still being asked and debated today.

Vera Farmiga plays Hart’s wife Lee, and she’s excellent as she always is. The scenes where she tells Hart in no uncertain terms how much he has hurt her and humiliated her are some of the strongest in the movie.

J.K. Simmons plays Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon, who firmly believes in Hart and sees him as the next president, but when these stories surface, he puts his foot down and tries to convince Hart that he needs to get out ahead of them, but Hart resists saying it’s no one’s business and that the American people care more about his ideas than his personal life. It’s an idealistic rationale that proved to be false. Dixon also makes things personal, saying that the huge staff of volunteers, many of whom have left jobs to help Hart, deserve the truth, as does Dixon himself, but again Hart resisted.

The rest of the cast is chock full of talented character actors playing campaign staff members and reporters.

I loved THE FRONT RUNNER. It’s blessed with a talented cast and director, and features a script that asks important questions about the role of the press, the responsibility of presidential candidates to the voters, whether or not the private life of public figures is fair game, the immorality of adultery, and the treatment of women by even the most well-meaning of men.

THE FRONT RUNNER has a lot to say about both an event that happened in 1988 and events that continue to play out today. It doesn’t really provide answers because it doesn’t appear that we have the answers yet. So the bigger question I suppose by film’s end is have we learned anything since 1988?

The answer seems to be a resounding “no.”

—END—

 

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018) – Robert Redford’s Swan Song A Good One

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Robert Redford in THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018)

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is being billed as Robert Redford’s final role. He has said he’s retiring from the movies after this. As such, this light amiable movie is a fitting swan song for the venerable movie star.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is loosely based on the true story of Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) a bank robber and thief who escaped from prison multiple times and simply couldn’t break the habit of robbing banks. When asked if he couldn’t find a different way of making a living, he responded that he wasn’t making a living, but simply he was living.

The story takes place in 1981 and follows Tucker and his two cohorts Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) as they quietly and politely rob one bank after another. One day, they choose a bank in which police officer John Hunt (Casey Affleck) is there with his kids. The heist goes off without a hitch, and Hunt is astonished and embarrassed to learn that he was inside a bank that was robbed and he didn’t see a thing. To save face, he decides to make it his mission to find and capture the folks responsible.

Tucker and his team become known to the public as “the over-the-hill gang” since they are described as men well into their 60s. The media reports their exploits as almost a human interest story, and in fact the public seems to like them. More so, because Tucker is so darn polite, even those in the bank who are robbed by him report that they seemed to like him. Not only is he polite, but he always seems to be smiling and happy.

After one particular heist, Tucker hides in plain sight by pulling over to the side of the road to help a stranded motorist, a woman named Jewel (Sissy Spacek). After she agrees to meet him for coffee, it becomes clear they like each other and a romance blooms.

Even when the heat is on, Tucker has no desire to quit his lifestyle, finding the increased police interest a challenge. In fact, once he learns that he is being pursued by Officer John Hunt, he even reaches out to him, much to Hunt’s astonishment. And Hunt finds himself liking the bank robber as well.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is blessed with a light and very enjoyable script by director David Lowery, based on a New Yorker article by David Grann, fine direction by Lowery, and excellent performances by the entire cast, led of course by Robert Redford.

Now, I’ve never been a big Redford fan.  It’s not that I haven’t liked him completely as an actor, but that his performances have rarely resonated with me.  That being said, there have certainly been films of his and roles he’s played that I’ve really enjoyed, but most of these came early in his career, in films like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969), THE STING (1973), and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976). Later films like THE NATURAL (1984), OUT OF AFRICA (1985), and INDECENT PROPOSAL (1992) didn’t do as much for me.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is easily Redford’s best performance that I’ve seen in a quite a while.  I had a lot of fun watching THE OLD MAN & THE GUN.

Redford makes Forrest Tucker— no relation to the famous late character actor, by the way— a guy who’s easy to like and root for. You really don’t want to see him get caught. The character is also a gifted storyteller, and he’s someone who, whether he’s talking to Sissy Spacek’s Jewel, or his partners, or to Casey Affleck’s Officer Hunt, you don’t want to stop listening to. Some of this is the script, but most of it is Redford. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a nod come Oscar time.

Sissy Spacek is equally as good as Jewel.  She and Redford work well together.  Their scene in the coffee shop is classic. He tells her point-blank that he’s a thief. She doesn’t believe him, and he asks her what she would do if he could prove it to her, and she says she’d leave. His response is that “in that case, I’m not going to do it. Not because I can’t. But because it’s not my style.”

Casey Affleck is also excellent as officer John Hunt. His career is going nowhere, and he’s terribly embarrassed by what happened in the bank, but his quest to capture Tucker doesn’t become an Ahab-like obsession, but rather an exercise in self-respect.

Danny Glover and Tom Waits also share fun scenes as Tucker’s fellow bank robbers.

Strangely, Keith Carradine gets fourth billing, but he’s only in the movie for a couple of seconds. Evidently, most of his role ended up being cut.

David Lowery’s script is humorous and upbeat, and has a lot to say about aging with dignity, about doing what you love and not worrying about how much time you have left. When Tucker tells Jewel he wants to ride horses, that it’s on his list of things to do in his life, she says he should hurry up and do it, to which he responds, “why?” Which got a nice laugh from the audience, but also makes the point that Tucker is extremely comfortable where he is in his life.

The best scene in the film is where Tucker follows Hunt into the men’s room to introduce himself to the police officer. It’s a great moment. Tucker’s pleasant personality is on full display, but so is Hunt’s, and the scene is a gem.

The film does tend to slow a bit towards the end, which says a lot since it only clocks in at 93 minutes. Admittedly, it felt longer.

There’s also a neat montage late in the film chronicling all of Tucker’s prison escapes which makes use of some Redford clips from yesteryear.

I really liked THE OLD MAN & THE GUN. Its charming story, although slow-paced, is a crowd-pleaser. It features strong performances throughout, especially by Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, and Casey Affleck.

But this is Redford’s movie, to be sure.  It’s evident he had fun playing this role. If it’s true that this is indeed his final performance, it’s a worthy finale to a long and distinguished movie career.

—END—