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

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best of enemies

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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