Best Movies of 2019

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 Movies from 2019. Now, while I see a lot of movies each year, I obviously don’t see every release, and so it’s possible that some of your favorites are not on this list. But here are mine:

10. READY OR NOT

I loved this gory campy thriller in which Samara Weaving plays a bride who finds herself married into a peculiar family: they love games, and on her wedding night, the game of choice is a variation of kill the bride, and they mean it. They’re playing for keeps. But Weaving’s character is no victim. She fights back and then some! Although it sounds like a downer, this one is saved by its lively humor where you’ll find yourself laughing at things you have no business laughing at. Samara Weaving, who was so good in the horror flick THE BABYSITTER (2017) is excellent here once again.

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9. DARK WATERS

This riveting drama about one attorney’s fight against the powerful Dupont chemical company which was not only polluting one town’s water but an entire nation with its no-stick cookware features top-notch performances by Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway. The most disturbing part of this film, which was based on a true story, is that the issue was never satisfactorily resolved and continues to this day. A must-see drama.

 

8. JOKER

The lone superhero movie to make my Top 10 list, and that’s a stretch, because it’s not really a superhero movie. It’s a moving and often disturbing drama that chronicles one man’s descent into one of the most iconic superhero villains of all time.  Joaquin Phoenix knocks it out of the park as Arthur Fleck, the man who eventually becomes the Joker. While I still slightly prefer Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) because of the way he dominated that movie, Phoenix’ performance here is very different but equally as satisfying. The strength of JOKER is it makes the story of the Joker completely plausible. You’ll understand and believe how an ordinary person could become the Joker.

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7. THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

This heartwarming tale of a young man with Down syndrome Zak (Zach Gottsagen) who runs away from his state-run home to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler features outstanding performances by Zach Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome in real life, Shia LaBeouf as the drifter who decides to help Zach fulfill his dream, and Dakota Johnson as the concerned social worker hot on their trail. Also features fine supporting performances by Bruce Dern and Thomas Haden Church. Superior script by writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. LaBeouf’s best performance to date.

 

6. SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK

The only horror movie to make my Top 10 List, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is all the more impressive because it’s rated PG-13 and still manages to be scary, and that’s because it takes its business of scaring people seriously. Based on the popular book series by Alvin Schwartz, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK succeeds at what a lot of other horror movies fail with, and that is, building suspense. This one gets more exciting as it goes along. It tells separate horror stories that are all connected by one compelling wraparound story. The whole thing works, making for the most solid and effective horror movie of the year.

 

5. THE CURRENT WAR (2017)

Filmed in 2017, THE CURRENT WAR was re-released in 2019 with a new director’s cut, and so I feel comfortable including it on my Top 10 List for 2019. This winner of a movie tells the fascinating tale of the competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to be the first to provide electricity for the United States. This period piece which takes place in the late 1880s-1890s is beautifully photographed and handsome to look at. Features two powerhouse performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, both of which drive this movie along, as well as a notable performance by Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Testa.

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4. ROCKETMAN

Outstanding biography of music legend Elton John features perhaps my favorite acting performance of the year, Taron Egerton’s spot-on depiction of the flamboyant and troubled John. Innovative in its approach, mixing the music of Elton John into key moments of the story, this film succeeds as much as a musical as it does as a biography. The sequence where John performs at the Troubadoor club in Los Angeles is one of the more electrifying sequences in any movie this year.

 

3. HOTEL MUMBAI

Not really shown a lot of love by critics, HOTEL MUMBAI nonetheless was one of the more intense movie experiences of the year. Based on the true story of the terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel in Mumbai,  HOTEL MUMBAI tells the compelling story of how— with authorities hours away from reaching the hotel— the hotel staff decided it was up to them to protect the guests from the terrorists who had overtaken the hotel. Thanks to some taut and tight direction by Anthony Maras, and notable performances by Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs, Anupam Kker,  and Nazanin Boniadi, this one is a nail-biter from start to finish.

 

2. JO JO RABBIT

For me, JO JO RABBIT was the biggest surprise of the year. It came out of nowhere and was a film that I went to see not knowing what to expect, especially considering it tells a tale of a young German boy JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis) living in World War II Germany who adores the Nazis and Adolf Hitler, so much so that his imaginary playmate is Hitler himself, played here with hilarious effectiveness by writer/director Taika Waititi. At times wildly comedic a la Monty Python, this one is also a moving drama as JoJo’s mother Rosie (Scarlet Johansson) is anti-Nazi and is secretly housing a young Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). When JoJo discovers her, he is at first outraged, but as he gets to know her, he begins to learn the truth about what Nazism is all about. JO JO RABBIT is an amazing movie that works on all levels. Thanks to the writing, directing and acting talents of Waititi, and the rest of his talented cast which also includes Sam Rockwell as a Nazi captain with a conscience of his own, JO JO RABBIT is both a deeply moving drama and wild zany comedy, which provided for me the most and the best laughs from a movie all year. This was my pick for the Best Movie of the Year, until the final week of 2019.

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1. LITTLE WOMEN

And that’s because the last week of 2019 I saw LITTLE WOMEN, a perfect gem of a movie by writer/director Greta Gerwig, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers working today. Gerwig makes the bold decision to tell this story out of sequence, and the result is a fresh moving take on a literary classic, one that effectively speaks to modern audiences here in 2019. Features outstanding performances by two of the most talented young actresses working today, Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, as well as a superior supporting cast which includes Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep. While I’m not really a big fan of the novel by Louisa May Alcott, I am an instant fan of this movie, thanks to Gerwig’s innovative directing and writing, the message about what life was like for women when they had so few rights, and the powerhouse performances by Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, two actresses to keep our eyes on in the years ahead. Without doubt, LITTLE WOMEN is clearly my pick for the Best Movie of 2019.

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And there you have it, my picks for the Top 10 Best Movies of 2019.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RICHARD JEWELL (2019) – Clint Eastwood’s Take on Atlanta Bombing Hero-Then-Suspect A Good One

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Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, and Paul Walter Hauser in Clint Eastwood’s RICHARD JEWELL (2019).

RICHARD JEWELL (2019) has a story to tell.

A story about how a man’s life was nearly ruined by an aggressive press and FBI investigation that both got it wrong when they accused him of being a terrorist bomber, releasing the story to the national media before the facts had been ascertained, in effect convicting him before he was ever charged.

This of course is based on the true story of what actually happened to Richard Jewell, a security guard who was falsely accused of the terrorist bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

RICHARD JEWELL tells this story well, and it does this with its talented cast and with Clint Eastwood at the helm. Eastwood, who is 89 – let that sink in for a moment—, continues to amaze, making films at an age long after most people have retired. Sure, his last couple of movies were misfires, THE MULE (2018) and THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018), but his three movies before that were all exceptional, SULLY (2016), AMERICAN SNIPER (2014), and JERSEY BOYS (2014). Of course, Eastwood’s entire body of work is nothing short of astonishing, as he will be remembered as both one of the screen’s finest actors and directors, and I think he’ll be remembered more for his work behind the camera than in front of it.

With RICHARD JEWELL, Eastwood has made another quality movie, well worth your time.

When we first meet Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) he’s a supply room clerk who’s rather odd and even a bit creepy in the way he lingers around people when he talks to them. He strikes up a friendship with one of the attorneys at the office, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) when he stocks his desk with Snickers bars. When Bryant asks him how he knew he liked Snickers, Jewell tells him he saw Snickers wrappers in his trash. Jewell also tells Bryant of his dreams to have a career in law enforcement.

The movie jumps ahead ten years, and Richard is working as a security guard at a local college, but because of his aggressive take on the position, he is fired. He next takes up a temporary security guard position at the Atlanta Olympics. Richard so wants to succeed in law enforcement, that he takes everything he does extremely seriously, and so while covering the Olympics, he’s always on the lookout for suspicious people and bags, and when he finds one lying on the ground, he alerts the police, and they tell him it’s probably harmless, but he insists they call for the bomb experts. They do, and it turns out he was right: the backpack contained a bomb, and before it can be defused, it goes off.

But because the evacuation had already started, the casualties were much lower than they would have been. When news breaks that Richard was the man who first found the bomb, he becomes an instant celebrity, and he’s hailed as a hero. But the FBI receives a call from Richard’s former college employer who had fired him, and he tells the FBI that based on his experience with Richard at the college, he fears Richard may be the type of person seeking attention, and it’s possible he may have planted the bomb just so he could play the hero.

The FBI agrees, feeling Richard fits the profile of someone who would go to extreme lengths to become a hero, and they quickly name Richard as their top suspect. Meanwhile, aggressive reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) in search of an angle, seduces information out of FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) who tells her they suspect Richard Jewell. Scruggs writes and publishes the article in the newspaper naming Jewell as the prime suspect, and the story goes national, enraging the FBI because they hadn’t even started their investigation. It also causes a media sensation, and the next thing Richard knows he’s being labeled a terrorist, the press surrounds his home and follows his every move, and the FBI brings him in for questioning.

Richard then turns to the only attorney he knows, Watson Bryant, a man he hadn’t spoken to in over ten years, but Bryant remembers Richard, and he agrees to take his case. The rest of the movie follows Bryant’s efforts to clear Richard’s name and attempt to undo the guilty verdict which the media had already delivered.

The strength of RICHARD JEWELL is that it does a terrific job telling its story while not politicizing it. Both the press and the FBI do not come out of this smelling like roses, and yet the film doesn’t espouse any of the delusional “enemy of the people” or “deep state ” fears which exist today. That’s because director Eastwood and the screenplay by Billy Ray, based on a magazine article by Marie Brenner, both show how easy and normal it would be to mistake Richard’s odd enthusiasm for law enforcement for something more sinister. Heck, just listening to him speak, he sounds weird enough to be guilty. Then again, what does a guilty person sound like? And that’s the point the film makes. In spite of appearances, you still can’t charge a guy without any evidence.

Which is one of the more amazing things about this story. The news about Jewell erupted in the news cycle without a shred of evidence behind it. Jewell was never charged because except for his “profile” there was nothing that was found that implicated him in the crime.

The acting is superb.

Paul Walter Hauser is captivating as Richard Jewell, an odd duck who is so dedicated and sincere in his quest to become a law enforcement officer that he sounds ridiculous to those who don’t know him well, hence fueling the fire and the notion that he has something to hide. However, both the movie and Hauser make Jewell’s portrayal clear: he may be an oddball, but he’s not guilty. In this regard, the film works well. The audience knows full well that Richard is innocent. Yet, suspicions about him are certainly understandable based on his personality. The problem was the press leaked the story before it had any corroborating facts. The only fact they had was the FBI had named Jewell as their prime suspect, which was true, but what followed was a trial in the media that all but confirmed Jewell’s guilt even as he remained uncharged by the FBI.

Hauser played a similar role in I, TONYA (2017), as Tonya Harding’s one-time body-guard, except in that movie he was an oddball who did carry out sinister intentions, hiring the guys who attacked Nancy Kerrigan.

As attorney Watson Bryant, Sam Rockwell is excellent as he always is. He’s one of my favorite actors working today, and I often see movies just because he’s in them. In fact, the main reason I saw RICHARD JEWELL was because Rockwell was in it.  Just look at his last three performances, for example. He stood out as Nazi Captain Klenzendorf in JO JO RABBIT (2019), as KKK member C.P. Ellis in THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019), and as George W. Bush in VICE (2018). And oh yeah, he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as racist cop Dixon in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017). And all of these roles were very different. Rockwell is as versatile as he is captivating on-screen.

Here, as Watson Bryant, he takes Richard’s case not only because he needs the business, but because he likes Richard and believes in him. In one of the better scenes in the film, after a bitter argument, Watson asks Richard why he chose him as his attorney, and Richard says he chose him because all those years ago he was the only person there who didn’t make fun of Richard, slur his intelligence, and fat shame him. He was the only person there who took time to talk to him.

Kathy Bates is fantastic as Richard’s dedicated mother. Bates knocks it out of the park when things spiral out of control ,and she laments she doesn’t know how to protect her son any longer. The pain she experiences is palpable. Her speech to the media towards the end of the film where she pleads for President Clinton to clear her son’s name is one of the more emotional scenes in the film.

Olivia Wilde as newspaper reporter Kathy Scruggs and Jon Hamm as FBI agent Tom Shaw add solid support, and Nina Arianda stands out as Watson’s loyal assistant Nadya Light, and she gets some of the better lines in the movie.

While the sequence featuring the bombing at the Olympics is suspenseful, RICHARD JEWELL is not a suspense thriller but a drama documenting what happens when there is a rush to judgement in the media. It nonetheless make for some compelling storytelling.

I liked RICHARD JEWELL a lot.  With his 41st film in the director’s chair, Clint Eastwood continues to cement his legacy as one of film’s greatest directors. He frames this story in clear understandable fashion, and he gets the most out of his actors. The result is a movie that both makes its point that facts matter, that media leaks and FBI bias are problematic, and that portrays Richard Jewell in sympathetic fashion so that his plight is understood and believed.

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JO JO RABBIT (2019) – Unlikely Comedy of Boy Who Idolized Hitler One of Year’s Best

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If I were to tell you that one of the best comedies of the year would feature Adolf Hitler as a main character, you probably wouldn’t believe me.

But believe! Because not only is JO JO RABBIT (2019) one of the best comedies of the year, it’s also one of my favorite movies of the year.

JO JO RABBIT is the story of a young boy named Jo Jo (Roman Griffin Davis) who during the waning days of World War II not only wants to be in Hitler’s army but also idolizes the Nazi leader, so much so that his imaginary friend is none other than Hitler (Taika Waititi) himself. He gets the nickname Jo Jo Rabbit when during his youth soldier training he refuses to kill a rabbit, and the officers make fun of him, calling him first a coward and then “Jo Jo Rabbit.”

When Jo Jo discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house, he is at first outraged, but then as he gets to know her through their subsequent conversations, his feelings change, so much so that he finds himself questioning the Nazi doctrine.

JO JO RABBIT is an unusual movie. It’s also a terrifically fun and comedic one. The scenes between Jo Jo and his imaginary Adolf are flat-out hilarious. Writer/director Taika Waititi has a field day with the role, making this one of the most unlikely characterizations of Hitler on-screen ever. Waititi channels equal parts Mike Myers and Michael Palin, and even some Tom Hanks in his completely inane and hysterical take on the character. When asked why he would ever consider playing Hitler, Waititi, who is Jewish, answered, “What better way to say f*ck you to the guy?” And he’s right.

Young Roman Griffin Davis is astounding as Jo Jo. He pretty much carries this movie, and that’s saying a lot for a film that features a strong veteran cast.

Equally as good as Davis is Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, the young Jewish girl hiding inside Jo Jo’s home. She is responsible for teaching Jo Jo some truths about life, including that he’s just a kid and not a Nazi. McKenzie stood out in last year’s LEAVE NO TRACE (2018) in which she co-starred with Ben Foster. I may have enjoyed her more here in JO JO RABBIT.

Scarlett Johansson delivers a spirited performance as Jo Jo’s mother Rosie. The two share some of the movie’s best scenes, certainly its most poignant ones, as the film speaks on what it’s like to be a single parent, but don’t expect strife and pain. Johansson’s Rosie is a strong character who is more than up to the task of raising her son on her own, even as she secretly works to take on the Nazis.

Likewise, Sam Rockwell— as he always is— is excellent as quirky Nazi officer Captain Klenzendorf who at times seems as if he walked off the set of the old HOGAN’S HEROES TV show. But there’s also a sincerity to Klenzendorf in his relationship with young Jo Jo that transcends comedic caricature.

And if Klenzendorf hearkens from HOGANS HEROES, Rebel Wilson’s Nazi Fraulein Rahm could easily have walked off the set of a Mel Brooks movie.

And young Archie Yates is exceptional as Yorki, Jo Jo’s second best friend— after Adolf. Yates and Davis share some tender scenes and some hilarious ones.

The screenplay by Taika Waititi, based on a novel by Christine Leunens, is nonstop hilarious. The film works not only as an energetic comedy and satire, but also as a moving drama that looks at the human condition and explores the relationship between Jo Jo and his mother, and more importantly, between Jo Jo and Elsa.

Some may argue that a movie like this may promote pro-Nazi views, and that some folks may not get the joke that these people are being made fun of, but the film combats that notion on two fronts. One, the Nazis here are portrayed as over-the-top buffoons, and two, the love of the Nazis is seen through the innocent eyes of a young boy, who with the experience of getting to know a young Jewish girl realizes how backwards and false those views are. In essence, as the story goes along, Jo Jo falls out of love with Adolf and in love with Elsa.

The film is clear in its repudiation of the Nazi agenda, as not only is Elsa a voice against Nazism, but so is Jo Jo’s mother Rosie, and to a lesser extent Captain Klenzendorf.

Taika Waititi, who also directed THOR: RAGNORAK (2017), and is known more for films like BOY (2010) and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2014) has hit a home run here with JO JO RABBIT. Everything about this one works, from its sharp satire, to its frequent laugh out loud moments, to its touching message on the human condition, which is simply put, that love conquers all, and that we are here to love each other, not kill each other.

The film is also shot in bright vibrant colors, giving Nazi Germany a celebratory feel, which goes against the many gray newsreels from history, the point being that ordinary German citizens thought everything was going great. They believed they were living the dream, while others who secretly fought back, realized their government was misguided and working against human rights and decency. So Nazi Germany in JO JO RABBIT is shown as a happy place, where the Nazi agenda operated in the shadows.

It’s not every day that you come across a comedy that satirizes Nazism successfully, but JO JO RABBIT makes it look easy.

As such, it’s one of my favorite movies of the year.

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THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019) – Racial Drama Has the Best Intentions

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THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019) has its heart in the right place.

Its tale, based on the true story of civil rights activist Ann Atwater taking on KKK leader C.P. Ellis in Durham, North Carolina in 1971 over the issue of school integration, in which Atwater succeeded in converting Ellis to shed his KKK beliefs and see things her way, is a good one.

And its message of bringing two opposing sides together to hear each other out and learn from each other is an important one for the times in which we now live. For this reason alone, it’s worth a look, even if it’s not successful in everything it sets out to do.

It’s 1971, and Durham, NC is dealing with racism. The black community struggles to have a voice, as local officials are heavily tied to the KKK, who continue to promote racist attitudes and policies. When the issue of school integration arises, the Durham legislature calls in Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) to mediate the two sides, and when he calls for Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) to be co-chairs, it’s seen as a crazy move. Neither leader is interested, and Ellis can’t understand why he’s even being asked, but the local officials encourage him to take part, because they fear if he’s not there, then his spot will be filled with liberal voice, so he might as well be there to stop school integration from happening.

As the process continues, and Ann and C.P. eventually engage in a dialogue, each begins to see things from the other’s perspectives, and eventually C.P. changes his mind about the way he views black people.

This story might seem too farfetched if it were not based on a true story.

THE BEST OF ENEMIES has the best intentions. It shows both sides almost to a fault. I was uncomfortable watching parts of this movie which spent much time on a KKK leader, often showing how much the Klan meant to this man. The idea of anything positive associated with the KKK I find repulsive, yet this film gets into how it made a positive impact on C.P. Ellis’ life. Of course, C.P. eventually experiences a conversion, which wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t had the opportunity to listen to the other side, which is the point—- and it’s a valuable one— that this film is making. For divisions to be overcome, both sides need to come to the table and need to be able to listen to each other.

Sam Rockwell does a fine job as C.P. Ellis, although I enjoyed his performance as George W. Bush in VICE (2018) more. Here, Rockwell plays Ellis as a man who was drawn to the Klan for a sense of belonging. He needed a place to fit in, and it didn’t hurt that he shared their same views of white purity and supremacy. As he listens to Ann Atwater, he is struck by some of the true things she says, like when she points out that he’s as poor as the black folks in town and economically speaking he has more in common with them than with the white lawmakers. And later when she helps his son who has Down’s syndrome, it strikes a chord deep within him.

Rockwell successfully captures this conversion, spending a lot of time looking confused and introspective, and as his eyes become open to the other side, he brings the audience in with him and allows them to know just what it is he his thinking and feeling.

Working against Rockwell here is he played a similar role in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017). In THREE BILLBOARDS, Rockwell played a racist cop who also undergoes a type of conversion, although not as clear-cut as the one C.P. Ellis experiences. Of course, Rockwell won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in THREE BILLBOARDS, which is a better movie than THE BEST OF ENEMIES since it had a livelier script and did a better job covering its controversial issues with nuance and gray areas, whereas THE BEST OF ENEMIES plays as more conventional straight-forward drama.

So, as I watched Rockwell here in THE BEST OF ENEMIES, I was reminded often of his work in THREE BILLBOARDS.

Taraji P. Henson is excellent as Ann Atwater, and for my money she gives the best performance in the film. She loses herself in this character, and having seen Henson in other movies, like HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), watching her here in THE BEST OF ENEMIES I often forgot I was watching her and instead believed I was watching the real Ann Atwater.

Unfortunately, as the film goes on, Atwater plays second fiddle to C.P. Ellis, as he gets more screen time than she does. I get the reason, since he’s the character who undergoes the conversion, but it’s a decision that’s not completely successful. For one, it keeps Henson off-screen, which is not a good thing, and two, it presents yet another story where the white guy is responsible for saving the blacks. That being said, the story told here remains a worthwhile one, but it’s a pattern in movies which is noticeable, and it’s not refreshing, and so it works against the movie.

Babou Ceesay is agreeable as mediator Bill Riddick, and Anne Heche, who I haven’t seen in a movie in ages, plays C.P.’s wife Mary, and she’s very good.

John Gallagher Jr., an actor who has impressed me in a variety of roles in such films as 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) and THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2016), has a small but important role here as Lee Trombley, a hardware store owner who is sympathetic to black people, and who represents one of the swing votes at the table.

Writer/director Robin Bissell lets the story of C.P. Ellis’ conversion speak for itself. The production, pace, and tone of the film are all rather subdued. There are very few radical moments, places where the film has an edge and makes its audience uncomfortable. We barely see the true ugliness of racism.

The emphasis here is on seeing C.P. Ellis as a real person, and understanding his background and motivation. He is portrayed as a sympathetic character, which for me, for most of this film, was in itself disturbing. Why am I watching a positive interpretation of a KKK leader? And of course, the answer is so we can understand how and why he changes.

The sanitization of the issues does not work to the film’s advantage, however, and at times, especially towards the end, the film lacks oomph when it should have been pulling at its audience’s heartstrings with its story of racial division and conversion.

THE BEST OF ENEMIES means well and ultimately has a positive message and rewarding story to tell, and that is, if people from opposite view points sit down at the same table and listen to each other, good things happen.

It’s a message that needs to be heard, and THE BEST OF ENEMIES at the very least has no problem sharing it.

–END—-

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___

 

 

 

 

Frances McDormand Outstanding in Powerfully Relevant THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)

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three billboards - frances mcdormand

Frances McDormand in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2027).

Can a bad cop be a good man?

Can an officer of the law who spends most of his time drunk and has been known to harass people of color have redeeming qualities? Can a woman whose teen daughter was brutally raped and murdered become so hated in her community that she receives death threats because she takes aim at the local police department for failing to solve her daughter’s case?

These are just some of the serious and complicated questions posed in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), a comedy drama by writer/director Martin McDonagh, a movie that does indeed produce frequent laughter but is driven by its serious themes, which by far are the best part of this film.

Mildred (Frances McDormand), an embittered coarse woman, spies three decrepit billboards on a lonely road on the way to her home and immediately hatches the idea to use them to combat the local police department.  She seeks out the young man Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) who runs the company that owns the billboards and pays for her messages to be put up, three simple statements which pretty much accuse the local police department of not doing enough to find the person who raped and murdered her teenage daughter.

Both the police department and the community as a whole take offense to Mildred’s billboards.  The very popular Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) tells Mildred that his department has been doing all they can to solve the case, but some cases are harder than others, and so far they just haven’t caught a break.  He tells her the billboards are not helping, but she ignores him.  To further exacerbate the situation, Willoughby has cancer and doesn’t have much longer to live, and with a wife and young children, he’s got the full support of his community, which makes people lash out at Mildred even more.

Most effected by Mildred’s actions is Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an oftentimes drunk officer with violent tendencies who is not above using threats and physical harm to get his job done, and he does indeed threaten Mildred.  But Willoughby defends his officer, claiming that deep down he’s “a good man.”

Mildred could give a care.  She only wants her daughter’s case solved.

With such a serious plot, you may be wondering how this can be a comedy.  The comedic elements come from the quirky townsfolk and from Mildred’s over-the-top way of dealing with them, from using a dentist drill on her dentist after he criticizes the billboards, to firebombing the police station.

The laughs also come from the language, which is vulgar and crude.  Everyone in this town, both young and old, talk like they’re related to Deadpool.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI tells a quirky story that gets better and stronger as it goes along, and its told well by writer/director Martin McDonagh.  His script is sharp and incisive with some truly biting humor, and even better, its serious themes like police brutality and vigilante justice are handled deftly.

Frances McDormand gives an outstanding performance as Mildred.  She has the weathered, determination of an army drill sergeant, and you can see in her drawn face the deep pain of having lost her daughter.  She’s particularly wounded because she and her daughter argued the night the girl was killed, and this was the last conversation she had with her daughter.

Sam Rockwell is equally as good as Officer Dixon.  At first, he makes Dixon someone you pretty much can’t stand, and Chief Willoughby’s comments that he’s a “good man” ring hollow.  But as the story goes along, and we learn more about Dixon, and we see that in spite of all his shortcomings, he really does want to do the right thing, his character becomes more sympathetic.  Rockwell is terrific in the role, and it’s saying something that he’s able to take this very unsympathetic character and give him significant depth to turn him into a guy who later in the movie the audience actually roots for.

And later when Dixon reaches out to Mildred with information about her daughter’s case, it’s not only a testament to the solid writing that this moment is believable, but to the two powerhouse performances by McDormand and Rockwell.

Woody Harrelson enjoys some fine moments early on as Chief Willoughby, but as the movie goes along the story really focuses more on Officer Dixon than the chief.

Other notable performances include Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s wife, Anne, and Caleb Landry Jones as Red Welby, the man who owns the billboards and catches just as much heat as Mildred for allowing the messages to go up.

Lucas Hedges, who was outstanding in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) and who we just saw in LADY BIRD (2017), has less to do here as Mildred’s teen son Robbie.  Clarke Peters enjoys some fine moments later in the movie as the newest police official in town, who, unlike Willoughby, has no patience for the volatile Dixon.

John Hawkes is sufficiently slimy as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie, and Samara Weaving is equally as good as his innocent, clueless nineteen year-old girlfriend Penelope. In one of the movie’s better scenes, Mildred looks like she’s about to verbally thrash Penelope in front of Charlie, but instead she recognizes Penelope’s innocence and she simply tells her ex-husband to be good to the girl.

The cast also features some familiar faces.  Peter  Dinklage has a small role as James, a local who has a thing for Mildred, and veteran actor Zeljko Ivanek plays the desk sergeant.  And in a very creepy performance, Christopher Berry plays an unsavory stranger in town who later becomes a person of interest in the case.  Berry was similarly creepy in a couple of episodes of THE WALKING DEAD as one of Neegan’s scouts, before he was blown up by a bazooka-wielding Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus).

Come Oscar time, you may see Frances McDormand as one of the final contenders for the Best Actress award for her performance here as Mildred.  She’s certainly one of the strongest draws of this movie.

But THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI also tells a relevant and powerful story and does so while interspersing genuine laughs throughout, thanks to some quality writing and directing by Martin McDonagh.

Its story remains genuine and true to life. There are no easy answers or quick fixes or nice neatly wrapped endings.  It’s full of people who mean well but screw up all the time, and others who don’t mean well and get away with their crimes. In short, it’s all rather ugly, but as in life, the things that matter don’t exist in a vacuum.  They’re oftentimes surrounded my muck and slime.  You just have to navigate through the mess to find what you’re looking for.

Or as is the case in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, you have to go above the muck and plaster your intentions on billboards, igniting a fight that you have no intention of losing.

—END—