Vice (2018)

Vice.png

How does a man go on to become who he is? Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) is responding to 9/11 with other White House officials. We flash back and forth to his drunken antics as a young man, getting kicked out of Yale, his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) setting him on the straight and narrow when he’s a drunken linesman and then getting into Washington out of Wisconsin U as an intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and seeing everything close up and personal during the Nixon era. Rumsfeld’s abrasiveness gets them distanced from the office, where Cheney overhears the President discussing the secret bombing of Cambodia with Kissinger (Kirk Bovill). His father in law appears to murder his mother in law (never investigated) and Cheney and Lynne form a tighter family unit. He becomes Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford (Bill Camp) while Rumsfeld is Secretary of Defence and he is introduced by Antonin Scalia (Matthew Jacob) to the Unitary Executive Theory. He has his first coronary while running to represent Wyoming and Lynne campaigns for his seat in the House of Representatives. He then becomes Secretary of Defence under George H. Bush during the Gulf War. When younger daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out, he resigns to prevent media scrutiny. He is CEO at Halliburton when George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) asks him to be his running mate in 2000 but he demurs and says he’ll help select that individual. But when he satisfies himself that Bush Jr. is incompetent he gets him to promise that mundane issues like energy and foreign policy be left to him and he accepts the role and sets up offices in every possible executive area … He would be a dedicated and humble servant to power. How is it that some of the most penetrating films about politics have been made by comedy auteur Adam McKay? Is this the only way we can take our reality nowadays? Perhaps. This freewheeling exercise in postmodernism is incredibly formally inventive, audacious even, and the film actually stops and the credits roll for the first time at 47 minutes. And then we kickstart into the real story, once again, back to 9/11 and the film’s narrator (a great joke, by the way) asks us why on earth was Cheney having a private talk with his lawyer David Addington (Don McManus) in the middle of this unprecedented act of terror? Amid the family dramas, Iraq, Afghanistan, the War on Terror, Halliburton’s involvement, the Crash,and everything else that has beset the US since that date, Cheney was the real power behind the White House controlling everything, even the terms of public discourse – ‘global warming’ became ‘climate change’, and so on. Sometimes the synoptic approach is genuinely funny, sometimes it feels too episodic. The film is all about heart – heart attacks, a heart transplant, the heart of power and family. Cheney’s final monologue tells us what we already know and Bale offers a robust picture of a seemingly bland man pummeled into unchecked power by an ambitious wife who himself becomes an untameable and unstoppable juggernaut, he’s everywhere, all of the time, at every formative event in recent Republican Party history. It’s a jigsaw puzzle moving backwards and forwards through the decades that pieces together how one person’s worldview came to predominate in the culture. Irreverent, entertaining and fairly shocking, this will make you laugh and hurl, sometimes simultaneously. Vice is the word. You have to remember that if you have power people will try to take it away from you – always

A Star is Born (2018)

A Star is Born 2018.png

Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave – 12 notes and the octave repeat. It’s the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer this world is how they see those 12 notes. That’s it. Seasoned musician country rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) discovers and falls in love with struggling singer/songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga) when she performs in a drag bar. She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer until Jackson coaxes her into the spotlight, bringing her on stage at one of his gigs to perform a song she’s written and he has arranged. He feels sorry for her when she tells him she is constantly told, You sound great, but you don’t look so great. Jackson is playing better than ever despite his crippling tinnitus which means his ears buzz every time he’s onstage and his hearing is diminishing, while Ally shines in the light of his stardom. As Ally’s career takes off when she’s taken under his wing and then makes a deal with the help of her nasty manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) the personal side of their relationship is breaking down. The self-sabotaging Jackson fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons, drinking, drugging, fighting with his older brother and caretaker Bobby (Sam Elliott) who taught him everything he knew while Ally performs to adoring fans and he struggles with his hearing problem … Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag. And unless you get out and you try to do it, you’ll never know. That’s just the truth. The fourth incarnation of this story under this title and a remake of the 1976 pop star version, this is an adaptation of a story that first came to the screen under the title What Price Hollywood? a cautionary tale about movie stardom. Electrifying and enervating by turns, I changed my mind about this film probably three times while viewing it. It hits all the screenwriting marks – one hour into running time, things begin to change and at minute sixty-five Ally is taking over and the last hour is rife with issues. A lot of the problems are summed up by the term naturalistic – something that could be described as a substitute for acting technique by one half of the duo at the story’s centre:  scenes are too long and you long for some reaction shots. Jackson’s earthiness is juxtaposed with the savvy pop Ally manufactures at her manager’s behest.  These people are performing for very different audiences but the film is truly at its height when they are duetting despite their contrasting aesthetics. The last seventy-five minutes drag rather repetitively with the suicide scene and its inevitability triggered by Jack’s admission to the psychiatrist that he first attempted it aged 13 which just indicates what we already know. The Saturday Night Live performance scene is poorly judged. The downward spiral needed one more story beat – to show that Jackson had some will to live:  the appeal of this Evergreen story lies in the will to power transformation of the ugly duckling into the swan while her progenitor dies to make way for her celebrity. It seems too easy for one talent to surrender to another. It gains traction however from the powerful songs which were largely co-written by the stars (with other writers including Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son) and their performance in live settings as they tell the story of the relationship and the diverging destinations of the protagonists. It’s all about her really – as we see from the clever titles in blood red echoing Garland and the final shot, a massive close up on Ally’s jolie laide face. It’s more than forty years since the last incarnation which means we missed the Nineties version and one of the issues here which is lightly touched upon is how the nature of celebrity has altered through social media and paparazzi in an entirely new century – it’s handled just enough to remain cinematic without horrible phone screens and irritating typage appearing (thank you to the debutant director for this mercy). Their differing styles are heightened as he looks from his old school perspective at the dancers Rez has deployed to give Ally mass marketability onstage:  it’s not just popularity she wants, it’s world pop domination. What we know about the woman for whom the story now exists is inscribed in the screenplay: Lady Gaga’s own physical attributes – the nose job was covered, oh, a decade ago?! in her real life and it of course alludes to Streisand in the same role; while she (sort of) protests about photos that don’t even look like me and we have seen for ourselves Gaga’s gradually altering appearance offscreen, meat dresses notwithstanding; and her appeal to Little Monsters is managed through her association with drag queens and her makeover with icky red hair (she objects to the suggestion that she turn blonde – why?) and the content of her lyrics; while her voracious desire for multi-platform fame is given a cover by bringing on a vicious British manager to be the bad guy. The central mismatched lovers find their balance in their family issues – with Andrew Dice Clay coming off like a nice version of Amy Winehouse’s dad complete with his delusions of Sinatra-style infamy. Cooper’s problematically deep speaking voice for the role is actually addressed in the script when he tells big brother Sam Elliott I stole your voice which is both an in-joke and a nod to the audience’s familiarity with the western star’s growl;  Cooper’s self-effacing performance – which of course makes Gaga’s star shine brighter – makes this hard to endure since his alcoholic demise is hard-wired into our cultural DNA and sometimes it’s quite impossible to understand what he’s trying to say – ironically, since, his message here is, you need to make your voice heard. It’s well played because the pair are playing off each other’s inspiring talent albeit the vampirism quickly feels one-sided.  Still, it’s quite a double act, no matter how you feel about them. An imperfect but striking piece of work. Written by Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters (who says he was inspired by what happened to Kurt Cobain), adapted from Moss Hart’s 1954 screenplay which was an inspiration for the 1976 screenplay by John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion and Frank Pierson.  The 1937 screenplay was by William Wellman and Robert Carson while the original screenplay about star-crossed lovers colliding, What Price Hollywood?, was written by Adela Rogers St Johns and Louis Stevens. Directed by Bradley Cooper.  Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die

Daddy’s Home 2 (2017)

Daddy's Home  2.png

You know, I’m just getting the feeling maybe you guys would like some privacy. Father Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) and stepfather Brad (Will Ferrell) join forces to make Christmas perfect for the children. Their newfound tolerant partnership soon gets put to the test when Dusty’s old-school, macho dad Kurt (Mel Gibson) and Brad’s gentle father Don (John Lithgow) arrive to turn the holiday upside down. After a sudden change in plans, the four men decide to take the kids to a luxury resort for a fun-filled getaway that turns into a hilariously chaotic adventure with Kurt’s competitiveness creating domestic chaos and Don concealing a terrible secret that unravels everyone’s idea of him … His total lack of masculinity, I mean his weak chin and soft underbelly bothers you not a bit? Written by director Sean Anders and John Morris from characters by Brian Burns, this sequel is an advert for toxic masculinity, shoplifting and avoiding the in-laws. Kurt’s enthusiasm for hunting inadvertently turns little Megan into a demon shot while Brad’s wife’s (Linda Cardellini) paranoia about Dusty’s wife’s (Alessandra Ambrosio) books is leavened by learning about her penchant for shoplifting. A funny sequence is a film-within-a-film starring Liam Neeson, sending himself up rather neatly (albeit he’s done it on every chat show he’s been on since the first Taken movie). This sequel has two wonderful actors (Gibson and Lithgow) and a modern day fool (Ferrell) and they do rather well with pretty thin gruel. I blame the parents.

All the Money in the World (2017)

All the Money in the World 2.jpg

I’m telling you this, so you could understand the things you’re about to see, and maybe you can forgive us. It’s like we’re from another planet, where the force of gravity is so strong it bends the light. We look like you, but we’re not like you.  When 16-year-old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is kidnapped on the streets of Rome in 1973 his devoted mother Gail (Michelle Williams) who’s divorced from the boy’s father John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan) tries to convince his billionaire grandfather, the world’s wealthiest man, oil billionaire John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) to pay the ransom. When Getty Sr. refuses, Gail attempts to sway him as her son’s captors become increasingly volatile and brutal:  she is telephoned regularly by one of his kidnappers, Cinquanta (Romain Duris) who has an unlikely frenemy relationship with Paul in his rural hideout. With her son’s life in the balance, Gail and Getty’s security advisor Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) become allies in the race against time as he misjudges the scenario and she relentlessly pursues Old Getty for the money to save her son’s life. When the kidnappers tire of waiting for their ransom they hack off they boy’s ear and mail it to a newspaper and she takes decisive action …  I’m, uh, building a house in California. An exact replica of my imperial villa in Rome, down to the very last detail. But with flush toilets. Yes, the mountain may not have come to Muhammad, but it sure as hell came to me. The true story of John Paul Getty III’s horrific kidnapping has elements of surprise even though it’s a famous crime:  adapted from the 1995 John Pearson book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J Paul Getty, screenwriter David Scarpa gives us the contours of unimaginable wealth, alienation and inhumanity, tailored in an efficiently-staged thriller which turns into a family melodrama with a child’s life at stake as his body starts to be dismembered and sent in the mail while Grandpa simply refuses to play the Mafia’s game because it doesn’t represent a decent tax dodge. You see everything has a price. The great struggle in life is coming to terms with what that price is. The action sequences are unexpected and stealthy – the kidnapping is swift and effective, as unnoticeable as a transaction with a whore on the Via Veneto. The concluding sequence when Paul runs for his life while the mobsters realise the police are on their tail and then they look for him to kill him takes place in a small mountain town at night and the simultaneous pursuit by Gail and Chase is nail biting – the villagers refuse to help them or Paul. Corruption is rife in Calabria and is treated as normal. When a man gets wealthy, he has to deal with the problems of freedom. All the choices he could possibly want. An abyss opens up. Well, I watched that abyss. I watched it ruin men, marriages, but most of all, it ruins the children.  At the heart of the story is Gail Getty’s relentless quest to find the money to free her son:  her trip to a museum to try to trade a valuable gift from Old Getty to Paul is heartbreaking – it’s a worthless trinket you can buy for 5 bucks in the shop and he told the kid it was worth $1.2 million. This is such a dreadful betrayal of Getty’s favourite grandson and heir. Her mission to con the guy to come up with the goods takes guts and glory and Chase’s loyalty to his employer ultimately shifts as Gail starts to think like Getty. Williams is splendid as the woman who has to see her drug-addled ex-husband across the negotiating table, with his father making full custody of the children a condition of the ransom being paid. (If anyone ever believed that JP Getty II and Talitha’s Moroccan junkie monsters were the epitome of style they should watch this). If you can count your money you’re not a billionaire. Christopher Plummer as the guileless bully who believes he’s the reincarnation of Emperor Hadrian bestrides the persona of the family patriarch who just happens to be the wealthiest man in history. His final journey into night as he grips a great work of art in his jaw-dropping collection shows us a man who just needed a mother in his life – how ironic it turns out to be his daughter-in-law, a tigress for her son. Ridley Scott just made another feminist fable. Isn’t that great? There’s a highly innovative choral score by Daniel Pemberton, while Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is simply breathtaking.  There’s a purity to beautiful things that I’ve never been able to find in another human being

Interlude (1968)

Interlude 1968.jpeg

What you are doesn’t need me. You don’t need anything.  Some years after their affair Stefan and Sally run into each other:  married Stefan Zelter (Oskar Werner) is a symphony conductor based in England who grants an interview to Sally (Barbara Ferris), a beautiful young reporter from The Evening Standard. While they talk, he makes a candid remark that gets him into trouble in both his personal and his professional life. To get away from the situation, Stefan, who is married to Antonia (Virginia Maskell), is advised by his lawyer to take a break which is when he meets Sally again and the two begin a romance. Her colleague Natalie (Geraldine Sherman), who is also having an affair with a married man, warns her about how these things go – never ever make a phonecall, even though you live by the phone waiting for him – and, even as it intensifies, he still hasn’t left his wife and family and she wants to quit him but can’t quite manage …  Touching romance, a remake of the Douglas Sirk film from a decade earlier, and scripted by Lee Langley and Hugh Leonard, this marks the directing debut of Kevin Billington.  Werner is perfect as the arrogant and passionate conductor with Maskell ideal casting as his wife who can tolerate a lot but not a love affair although she makes a good stab at it. The dinner she proposes between the threesome in this triangle is excruciating to the point she cannot bear it herself. Ferris is an unusual actress and her performance is both straight and sympathetic – honest, I think is the word. There are nice supporting performances from John Cleese as a TV PR who believes satire is his best talent (!) and Donald Sutherland as Stefan’s divorced friend who tells Antonia he wouldn’t spill the beans if he knew Stefan were having an affair. Stefan ironically observes his father-in-law dining with his own mistress which precipitates a hasty exit from a restaurant. When Sally breaks the rules by phoning Stefan prior to a performance we know this will end the way it must. Well told tale, with a stunning soundtrack, especially the original score by the great Georges Delerue.

Father’s Little Dividend (1951)

 

Fathers Little Dividend.jpg

Don’t worry about her. She took her toothbrush so she’s not gone to the river.  Stanley Banks (Spencer Tracy) reminisces about the year since his beloved daughter Kay (Elizabeth Taylor) got married to Buckley Dunstan (Don Taylor). Wife Ellie (Myrna Loy) takes Kay’s baby news in her stride but Stanley is undone, particularly when Kay regales him with the ideas her gynaecologist has for her mothering style – carrying the baby on her back for two years doing the housework and swinging him around to feed him every so often. The wealthy in-laws (Moroni Olsen and Billie Burke) take over the young couple’s new home leaving Stanley feeling quite useless. They all swamp Kay with ideas about what the new arrival should be called. She leaves Buckley, believing him to be having an affair when he claims to be working late and returns home where Stanley works out a diplomatic reunification. When the baby boy is born he doesn’t like Stanley and the rejected grandfather ignores him until the parents leave him in his and Ellie’s care for a weekend and he manages to lose him … The sequel to Father of the Bride (one of the first in Hollywood) with the same winning cast, this is worth catching for Tracy alone:  his facial expressions are classic. Written by Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett, from Edward Streeter’s characters and directed once again by Vincente Minnelli. Partly remade 45 years later by Nancy Meyers, this is a really good account of marriage and family and abounds in charm.

Love Story (1970)

Love Story theatrical.jpg

Where do I begin?  There are seven basic plots and Love Story is one of them. Boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy loses girl. It began as a screenplay sold to Paramount Pictures and the writer, literature professor Erich Segal, was persuaded to novelise it. The novel became a bestseller before the film’s release. The stars were already very elderly to be playing undergrads – Ryan O’Neal was 29, Ali MacGraw 31.  Some smart and arch dialogue, the decision to use classical music (“What could be better than Bach – or Mozart – or you?”), an audacious opening, well chosen fashion, characters who do things (play keyboards, hockey) all contribute to a film that feels unerringly modern. O’Neal had been a Hollywood kid who nonetheless paid his dues in TV including a long stint on Peyton Place, MacGraw had made an impact the previous year as Jewish American Princess Brenda Patimkin in the Roth adaptation,  Goodbye, Columbus (Peerce) and both performers were affecting and ridiculously beautiful (and remain so to this day.) What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died?  A classic.

Love_Story_(Erich_Segal_novel)_cover.jpg