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Vice (2018) Movie Review By Gianni Damaia

Vice

Director: Adam McKay
Writer: Adam McKay
Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell

Adam McKay has always been one to watch. His transition from an inspiring bro-comedy director to the creator of an Oscar winning educational, political dramedy has been astounding to observe and grow with. From the second The Big Short ended, I was eager to see his next move. Sticking with the latter of his skill set, McKay has followed up with Vice, a political satire with a dash of lunacy and frenetic drama. Unfortunately, I didn’t find Vice to have nearly the same level of appeal as McKay’s previous works.

Vice follows the story of Dick Cheney, the famed enigmatic political mastermind, so to speak, behind the Bush administration. Of course, by the movie’s own admission in the opening title card, liberties had to be taken. The lines between historical accuracy and fiction are blurred, with the approach aiming to use its self awareness to its advantage in order to separate itself from your typical biopic. From the jump, McKay guarantees a polarizing experience, knowing full well his political leanings will influence the story. I only mention this to acknowledge that certain biases exist. Some audiences will appreciate them while others won’t, but in terms of objective criticism (if such a thing exists), I believe it bares no weight on my review of the film. What does, however, is McKay’s incessant need to make his film chaotic to avoid it being boring.

Vice utilizes an ‘objective’ narrator, title cards, and even voiceover from the inner monologue of Cheney himself. It has several sequences of entirely satirical circumstances, poking meta textual fun at the real life events. If you ever wanted to watch Cheney and his wife spontaneously bust into Macbethian soliloquy’s, you can find it in Vice. If you ever wanted to see an entire sequence of fake final credits, you can find it in Vice. And hell, if you want to see Christian Bale stare straight into the lens of the camera and talk directly to the audience in a way that would make you wish House of Cards had been remade and recast, then you will get that in Vice. The point I’m making is that McKay utilizes a lot, and I mean A LOT, of storytelling devices to keep his film new and entertaining, but it doesn’t mean it makes his film better. I’d argue it makes it worse.

The frenetic pace established early in Vice has no identity. The aforementioned opening title card hints at a comedic opening, but it takes nearly 20 minutes for another joke to land. Why? Because Vice can’t decide whether it wants to be a straight political satire or a dramatic character study. The occasional display of satirical showmanship detracts from the credibility of the storytelling. McKay’s previous work, The Big Short, played its hand similarly. In fact, it’s fingerprints are all over Vice. The difference is that The Big Short wisely separated it’s self referential moments from the story at work. It used those meta conversations to propel and strengthen the core narrative. Vice can’t separate the two, and as a result the audience can’t either.

Perhaps my biggest contention with the film is that by its end, I don’t really understand Cheney. Dick Cheney is intimidating and calculated, but he’s constantly being resorted to a figure as opposed to a character. I never get to watch him think because I’m busy being told by the narrator that Cheney is thinking. Despite him dominating the screen time, I don’t exactly know much about him beyond what he’s done according to the film. As far as I can tell, the moments and decisions that propel Cheney in this film are little more than a strong desire for power.

Rarely do characters ever sit and have a straight conversation because McKay is constantly playing with the frame, throwing images at it to see what sticks. The timeline is another point of contention. There is a flippancy to which Vice works with Cheney’s past. At any given point, we are constantly being tossed from one period in his political career to another. Sometimes, McKay finds life and significance in this choice. For example, Cheney looking upon the Oval Office after being elected Vice President juxtaposed with a memory of Cheney getting his first ever office, essentially a desk and walls and no windows. Other times, the story changes timeline with no discernible rhyme or reason and detracts from the storytelling and momentum of whatever previous scene came before it.

My contentions with Vice aside, this isn’t a film void of impressive features. It should come as no surprise that Christian Bale is immersive and utterly brilliant. Not only is it a role with intense focus on the nuance of Cheney’s mannerisms to capture his persona, Bale also finds plenty of opportunities to pursue the character’s wants and desires with little more than a glance. This is a performance that completely elevated the character beneath it. With Bale at the helm, Cheney becomes almost appealing, despite being a villain for much of the film. This may be the most intimidating presence Bale has ever portrayed, and I’m including Bruce Wayne in that hot take. Generally, I avoid performance bashing in my reviews, because actors are so often front facing and have such little to do with the larger picture, so all I’ll add is this: The other performers do relatively well, but Bale is undoubtedly the highlight. For all that I have to say against McKay’s frantic display, he does make impressive storytelling choices. Tethering themes of fishing and heartlessness into the greater narrative takes a bold, ambitious mastermind. The handheld camera work adds to the story, creating an atmosphere of intimacy for a character that can seem so ‘larger than life’.

The most important thing to note is that despite all my gripes, Vice still managed to keep me entertained. I enjoyed Vice more than the rating I’m giving it, and while I can’t argue that my enjoyment makes it better, I can argue that it might still be worth your time. Maybe. But Christian Bale is definitely worth your time.

6.5/10

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Last Flag Flying (2017) Movie Review by Stephen McLaughlin

LAST FLAG FLYING

Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Richard Linklater (screenplay), Darryl Ponicsan (screenplay)
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell

Last Flag Flying is the latest film by Richard Linklater and is about three old friends who served together in Vietnam, a former Navy Corpsman Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) re-unites with his old buddies, former Marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) to bury his son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War.

Set in 2003, “Doc” decides against a burial at Arlington Cemetery and, with the help of his old buddies, takes the casket on a bittersweet trip up the East Coast to his home in suburban New Hampshire. The movie is based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan and is adapted into a screenplay by Linklater who is comfortable in a storyline built on relationships. The film is centred around these three characters throughout the film and what I enjoyed was the personalities that Cranston, Fishburne and Carell brought to the screen.

Steve Carell as “Doc” is brilliant. The actor portrays the role understandably filled with sadness and sorrow. But there is an underlying sweetness and softness to the character who also is the glue the holds the friendship between the three of them for the duration of the movie. I have just recently watched and reviewed Carell in “The Battle of the Sexes” and again I was impressed with the actors range. “Doc” has lost his son in War and tragically lost his wife recently also due to illness but his goal is to give his son the proper send off. Carell’s character throughout the story is unsure how his son died and also has a hard time accepting his son’s choice to enrole in US Services. Thankfully there is some resolve for the character in the movies final moments that put his anxieties and doubts to bed once and for all.

Surprisingly for me the character Reverend Richard Mueller played by Laurence Fishburne has some great moments comedically and its something I felt the actor handled very well. In the thirty years since the Vietnam War, Richard is a changed character clearly being a man of the cloth and appears to be settled and content in his life. The War and his past are exactly that, in the past. Fishburne plays the character much like Carell does with his character at first until Sal Nealon unearths the real Richard Mueller which I will get to shortly. Personally this is a side to Laurence Fishburne’s acting credentials I haven’t seen a lot of and I would certainly like to see more.

Bryan Cranston just continues to impress with his diversity in his choices as an actor. Here he plays former Marines Sal Nealon who now runs a bar and obviously likes a drink into the bargain. His first meeting with “Doc” shows the audience that although a little hazy remembers the War and his friends. Sal is the total opposite of Richard in this sense. He doesn’t forget and doesn’t appear to want to forget his past, but not in a nostalgic way but remembering the friendships during the conflict remains in his mind. Cranston and Fishburne together in every scene is a joy to behold. Both actors play off each other as if they have been friends for a long time and their characters bring out the best and worst in each other. The change in Richard from when we first see him and when Sal gets under his skin is very funny and gives you an idea on how these men would have had to cope in the extreme situation they found themselves in 30 years prior. This is what this movie is about.

Director Richard Linklater again shows his diversity in his film making. I know him best for the comedy starring Jack Black “School of Rock” and the odd but enjoyable animated movie “A Scanner Darkly” so it was interesting to see how he would handle a drama about relationships and keep the audience interested in what is a simple plot. Thankfully character development and putting the story out on the road manages to keep you watching and thanks to a very good script will have you pulled through an emotional wringer. Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell all perform brilliantly and I’m glad all three of them were cast in their roles. The Cinematography by Shane F. Kelly is also nice as the movie is filmed in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the most of the scenery is a nice to look at.

Overall Last Flag Flying is a great relationship drama. I think calling it a “Buddy Movie” would be a disservice to the film as it deals with a rack of emotions and situations that doesn’t appear to be forced at any point. The film flows naturally thanks to Linklater’s direction and the casting helps the characters develop and connect with the audience. The movie appears to have gone under the radar being released in between the big blockbuster releases of The Justice League and The Last Jedi but thankfully is doing the rounds at local Film Festivals. I would recommend giving “Last Flag Flying” a viewing as it is an enjoyable film to watch from a technical point of view, a performance point of view and from a storytelling point of view. Highly Recommend.

Battle of the Sexes (2017) Movie Review by Stephen McLaughlin

BATTLE OF SEXES.png

Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Simon Beaufoy
Stars: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Bill Pullman, Sarah Silverman

I was pleasantly surprised with “The Battle of the Sexes” the primary storyline to the movie is the legendary story of Billie Jean King (Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Carell) going head to head in a showdown match between the legendary women’s Tennis player and Tennis hustler and former men’s Tennis player. But there is more to this movie than just a gimmicky event. This is more about Billie Jean King and her personal and professional battles in the early 1970’s.

Society has came along way since 1973 and let’s be honest we still have a long way to go. But back in 1973 the world was a different place. In the Tennis world the men’s games was rewarding their players with 9 times more pay than the women’s who were pulling in the same crowds as the men’s. Unfair? Well obviously. Not just that but the game and its institutional was favouring the men’s game considerably to the point of chauvinism.

Billie Jean King along with her manager Gladys Heldman (Silverman) were at the forefront to change the face of Women’s Tennis forever by breaking away from the WTA and its President Jack Kramer (Pullman). Also in her personal life, she was battling. Struggling to come to terms with her own sexuality, as her friendship with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) developed throughout the tour.

This is where the story succeeds. The match itself although is billed as the climatic finish to the film, I felt her battle with the establishment and her own personal feelings more compelling. The match versus Bobby Riggs was really just the icing on the cake. As a “get it up you” to Kramer and Co.

Emma Stone must be in the top 5 of Hollywood actresses just now. Her portrayal of Billie Jean King is controlled and composed. She never at any point over does the character or the situation. In fact, I felt her portrayal helped me understand the struggle not just for her but for women in general and not just in the Tennis world. Stone gained 15 pounds of muscle for this film and shows her commitment to the role.

Steve Carell I have been a fan of since 2003’s Bruce Almighty as the irritating Evan Baxter and followed this character up with the less successful Evan Almighty. His next role though was the one that caught my eye in 2007’s Dan in Real Life. It showed to me that Carell could act outside his comfort zone and in The Battle of the Sexes I felt he did well as the serial hustler Riggs. As Billie Jean King said Riggs is more of a clown playing to an audience rather than and out and out chauvinist. Don’t get me wrong there are times when he displays a lack of respect in the film and to be honest I wasn’t sure myself whether or not this was part of his act.

The rest of the cast where mostly consistent and really just add to the occasion. Sarah Silverman is great as Heldman. Andrea Riseborough was fine as hairstylist Marilyn Barnett. Disappointingly Bill Pullman’s portrayal of Kramer is a little flat and uninteresting. Predictable you may say.

Credit to Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. What could have been a very run of the mill storyline turned into an interesting drama that flitted back and forth between Billie Jean King versus Bobby Rigg, Billie Jean King’s relationship with Marilyn Barnett and Billie Jean King versus Jack Kramer. The pacing throughout was consistent and was well mapped out. Interestingly I was personally impressed by the inclusion of stock footage of Howard Cosell (Famous Sports Announcer who broke the News of John Lennon’s death on Monday Night Football that dreadful December night back in 1980) using clever CGI wizardry the filmmakers managed to convince the audience that actress Natalie Morales, who played Rosie Casals was being interviewed by Cosell in an almost flawless process. Apparently the most difficult part wasn’t the technical aspects, but getting permission from his estate.

Overall “The Battle of the Sexes” is an interesting film. The look and feel to any historic moment in time is crucial and I feel the makers hit the nail on the head with feel and tone. Stone in particular could be up for an academy award nomination for her portrayal it was that good and the storyline concluded well. If you haven’t viewed this movie yet I can honestly say watch it and you will be entertained. Highly Recommended.

The Big Short (2015) Movie Review by John Walsh

BIG SHORT

Director: Adam McKay
Writers: Charles Randolph (screenplay), Adam McKay (screenplay)
Stars: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling

Known mostly for his comedy work alongside good friend Will Ferrell on both the Anchorman duo-logy and Step Brothers; Adam McKay opts to go with a slightly more serious brand of comedy in The Big Short. Boasting a stellar cast and based on the Michael Lewis book of the same name, the film attempts to cast light on the 2008 financial crash, seen from the insider perspective and successfully utilising a more grown up, darker humour to bolster what is a pretty compelling story.

It follows the trials and tribulations of three separate ‘groups’ for want of a better word as they all become aware of the impending financial crisis of 2008 and attempt to ‘short’ a housing market teeming with unsustainable, sub-prime mortgages by gambling huge sums of money on its collapse. This of course draws ridicule from the unbearably smarmy banks and the litany of plebs working within, who at this point think themselves untouchable, and blinded by arrogance, blissfully unaware of the danger on the horizon. The same can’t be said for Doctor Michael Burry (Christian Bale); a brilliant analytical thinker and hedge fund manager, he spots the patterns emerging and predicts the crash way ahead of anyone else within the industry. It’s really his character, something of an introvert and rather socially awkward, who bears the brunt of the ridicule at the beginning, as he effectively gambles $1.3bn by convincing (there wasn’t much needed) pretty much every financial institution to let him set-up investments on bad loans going, well… bad.

Hot on his heels and alerted by the bemused gossiping spreading around town of Burry’s sudden investing is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling); a sly, egotistical, salesman at Deutsche Bank, the ultimate profiteer and the narrator throughout. Seeing the potential of massive profits on the horizon, he immediately sets about encouraging Mark Baum (Steve Carroll); something of a rentagob and a disenfranchised worker at Morgan Stanley, still reeling from his brothers recent suicide into purchasing credit default swaps from his bank. Baum harbours a growing resentment towards Wall Street and despite being suspicious of Vennett’s motives, he agrees to look into the viability of the venture, setting out with his team of underlings to investigate the growing bubble of sub-prime mortgages. This reasonably short sequence begins with them encountering a pair of cocksure, perma-tanned, mortgage brokers that draw the chagrin of the increasingly aghast Baum and ends with the latter, looking decidedly uncomfortable, as he grills an exotic dancer at a strip club. This eye opening conversation, where the woman openly admits to owning five separate houses that she can’t possibly afford, convinces him to get on board with Vennett.

McKay then introduces the third and final group of money chasing desperadoes, the two college friends, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock); entering the story in the lobby of an unnamed bank as they get a rather gentle and quite humorous rejection from an amused employee, whilst trying to arrange an ISDA, but failing to meet the requirements by the meagre sum of $1bn and spare change. The Brownfield fund they started is very much small time and they’re left cursing their luck until they discover the existence of the potential ‘bubble’ by picking up Vennett’s discarded dossier on the table before one of them turns to the camera, as the film quite often does, and explains that this didn’t actually happen in real life. With the two of them now on the scent like a randy, Blood Hound, they require the assistance of an old acquaintance to help get them a seat at the ‘big-boy’ table. Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) is that man. Highly suspicious of his incoming calls being tapped, the pair initially struggle to get a hold of him, but after finally succeeding they manage to convince him to help out after he admits that the statistics they earlier sent him were concerning.

The film then juggles all three perspectives around as things begin to progress, with frustrations quickly manifesting themselves, as all of them, well technically not Burry because he got it out of his system early, begin to invest more into the shorting financial gamble, whilst in the meantime they face having to fork out on costly premiums attached to their investments, with the inevitable crash seemingly refusing to materialise. During this point the moral beacon and voice for the regular joe is very much Rickert, out of the game and with nothing to really gain himself, he berates the excitable Charlie and Jamie after they successfully trade on AA rated loans, reminding them of the human cost that a huge financial crash brings. It soon becomes evident that the entire system, built on a Jenga like ticking, time bomb of a foundation as Vennett eloquently visualises earlier, is highly fraudulent with unscrupulous deals being done to maintain AAA ratings on clear sub-prime mortgages. This has the double edged effect of infuriating the protagonists and fooling the top cat bankers into a false sense of security. Of course, with the clear benefit of hindsight, the viewer know fine well that entire thing imploded shortly afterwards, but neither the film nor the people directly benefitting from it gloat when it finally hits (except Baum who can’t resist nailing a banker who’s the complete antithesis of himself), choosing instead to focus on the innocent parties effected.

There’s some very good performances here in what is a pretty excellent ensemble cast. Christian Bale does exactly what you’d expect him to do, transforming into the almost unrecognisably awkward Michael Burry, a man that walks around bare footed, in shorts and a t-shirt, whilst locking himself in his office and listening to heavy metal. He perfectly encapsulates this with all the nervous, little quirks you’d expect in such a man. Normally known for his comedic roles, Steve Carrell delivers a smashing performance as the incongruous Mark Baum, a man riddled with guilt at his brothers untimely death and steadfastly determined to bring some moral equilibrium to a bent system. Ryan Gosling is decent too, adding some comedic flair to the film with his narration of the events and intermittent turns to the camera. Both John Magaro and Finn Wittrock put in solid portrayals too, whilst the strong supporting cast headed up by Brad Pitt, who makes a fleeting appearance, Marisa Tomei, Jeremy Strong and quite a few others really help make this what it is. The film also unusually turns to brief cameos from celebrities, most notably Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez, to explain the finer details of CDO’s and credit-default swaps. These don’t effect the pacing of the film or take you out of it in way.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Big Short and given the nature of the films subject matter, it was perhaps extremely important for McKay to get across the seriousness of it all whilst lightening the tone with comedic moments. It could’ve quite easily became a bore fest if he strayed in one direction too much, but I think he got the perfect blend between the two. I would have no problem recommending this film, if like me, you somehow managed to miss its original release.