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Adam McKay is a smart comedy writer and director who has a long-time partnership with comedian Will Ferrell, partnering in farces like “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers.” In 2015, McKay left his comfort zone to adapt the Michael Lewis financial bestseller “The Big Short.” This was a major challenge, but McKay met it by coming up with a superb comedy-drama through ingenuity, a risk-taking script, and great casting. His effort was rewarded when he received five Oscar nominations and a statuette for Best Adapted Screenplay. Now, McKay takes on a subject perhaps as difficult: “Vice,” an intricate biopic about an hermetic politician: Dick Cheney.

“Vice” traces Cheney’s life from his time as an irresponsible 22-year-old lug, driving while drunk and going nowhere, to the power behind the throne as George W. Bush’s vice president. An early scene also throws us into the turmoil of 9/11, with Cheney being whisked away by Secret Service agents to a safe location. The film keeps returning to that fearful day and the Veep’s commandeering of the situation. Beyond those flash forwards, we observe a restive chronology of Cheney’s political life, narrated by an “unconventional narrator “ named Kurt (Jesse Plemons) whose relationship to Cheney is unknown until a last big serio-comic reveal.

Cheney’s chronicle begins with a stern dressing down from his girlfriend, Lynne (Amy Adams), who threatens to leave him if he doesn’t shape up. Through her balanced cajolery and reassurance, Cheney slides into Republican politics, from staff positions at the White House--aided by mentor Don Rumsfeld (Steve Carell)--through a Congressional career, to a stint as Secretary of Defense under Bush 41, then to his triumph as Vice President for Bush 43.

Through it all, the character of Cheney evolves over 45 years from naïve simp to cagey pro to finally embody that near satanic figure of hunched posture, canny visage, and monotonic drone which delivered some of the most terrifying euphemisms of our age. The transformation of the “Vice” is fascinating to watch, with Christian Bale (and a make-up team headed by Greg Cannon) more than up to the task. For this viewer, in fact, that transformation showed a young “Cheney” that just looked like Bale to a clever impersonation of the middle-aged man into, ultimately, a convincing embodiment of the dour politician in his mature years (helped by Bale putting on 45 pounds). It is a worthy realization of the character, clearly award-bait.

Amy Adams also shines as the sweetly pressuring wife, a 1950’s girl willing to take a back seat to her hubbie but ever iron-spined in matching Dick’s instincts to her ambition (one of the cleverer asides that McKay uses is a pillow talk session between the couple where they trade verses from “Macbeth”). Adams in turn convinces as engaging domestic mom, dogged but honeyed promotor of Cheney, and ever-ready helpmate. She may not be the complete power-behind-the throne, but we see that she is often the catalyst for a rise in the family’s fortunes.

Less effective are the major featured roles undertaken by Carell as Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush. Carell is way too crass and ham-handed (compared to the real controlled Rumsfeld), seeming to do manic variations on his “The Office” TV personage rather than plumbing the nature of the politician (an exception is his intimate phone call with Cheney late in the picture, a scene that personifies treachery). Rockwell may be having fun at “W’s” expense, but I didn’t for a minute buy him as Bush II. Poorly directed, he comes off as a witless Texas stereotype, way dumber than his real-life counterpart. Also, he doesn’t look much like the man. One among many portrayals of real people in “Vice” that stands out is Don McManus as Cheney’s lawyer, David Addington, who embodies the character’s devilish machinations while looking strikingly like the real thing.

Thinking of other political satires, “Vice” recalls Oliver Stone’s “W.” (2008), another movie that exposes the flaws of an major official through ridicule and exaggeration. This depiction is just as damning as Stone’s, but “Vice” is able to soften Cheney’s edges with many scenes of genuine family life and real domestic crises (Cheney’s health problems, for example, figure prominently). McKay also, as he did with “The Big Short,” mingles his chronological narrative with funky asides, such as a surprise false ending to the film, a surreal restaurant scene, and a studied essay on the “unitary presidency theory,” as well as acerbic tangents and satiric images.

To note: Much of “Vice” takes place in a Washington, DC environment, but, as with most DC movies these days, not much is made of real District locations (most of the film was shot in and around Los Angeles). The Cheney character is shown briefly in city locations, such as sequences at the Grant Memorial and at the entrance to L’Enfant Plaza, and there are several standard stock images: down 16th Street NW, on the South Lawn of the White House, and, as ever, the Capitol.

(The film is rated “R” and runs 132 minutes)

(December 2018)

Christian Bale (left) and Amy Adams star as Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne in a tense moment from “Vice.”
Photo Credit: Matt Kennedy, Annapurna Pictures; ©2018, all rights reserved.

If Beale Street Could Talk

This film version of James Baldwin’s fifth novel, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, is a splendid follow-up to the director’s Academy-Award-winning ”Moonlight” (2016), working out with sympathy and spirit the story of young love thwarted yet finally redeemed. It’s a wonder that it has not been filmed before.

The setting is 1970’s Harlem and features 22-year-old aspiring sculptor Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) and 19-year-old Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne), friends since childhood who are engaged and hope to settle on Beale Street. Their hopeful lives are turned upside down when Fonny is falsely accused of rape by a Puerto Rican woman (Emily Ross), in a case trumped-up by a resentful white policeman, Officer Bell (Ed Skrein).

Fonny is well aware of the trials of prison time from his friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) who has recently been released. Still, he is jailed and awaiting trial when Tish learns that she is pregnant. Tish’s family, led by her steadfast mother Sharon (Regina Hall), is fully supportive of her and her fiancé, while Fonny’s family is either indifferent to the young man or suspects he is guilty. Sharon helps find a lawyer to defend Fonny, hoping to find evidence to free him before the baby is born. Sharon persists in the case by tracking down the accuser in Puerto Rico but is unable to get her to recant. The couple’s love remains ardent but their future uncertain.

As he did in “Moonlight,” Jenkins has again composed an intricate, lyrical cinematic poem of African-American life, taking inspiration from the novel of Baldwin. To help achieve his effects, he has relied again on two crucial collaborators from his earlier triumph, cinematographer James Laxton and musical director Nicholas Britell. Both Laxton’s glowing and vibrant camerawork and Laxton’s sinuous and period-proper score add considerable dimension to the film, which Jenkins directs with a graceful and honest touch.

The cast, a diverse ensemble, is stellar, led by the two leads. James as Fonny exudes innate intelligence (you believe he is an artist) and wounded pathos. Layne, who has more to do since she is the story’s narrator, blossoms with earnest love and her total commitment towards her man. It is Regina King as Sharon, however, who commands the movie. King, while a busy actress, has not had enough roles where she has been able to shine, but she sparkles here, as a woman of powerful empathy and strength, a powerful model for her aspiring daughter.

(The film, released at Christmas, is rated “R” and runs 117 minutes.)

(December 2018)

Stephan James (left) as Fonny and Kiki Layne as Tish appear in “If Beale Street Could Talk".
Photo Credit: Tatum Magnus, Annapurna Pictures; ©2018, all rights reserved.

On The Basis of Sex - DC In the Movies

This year already saw a popular and critically-lauded documentary about ageless Supreme Court associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “RBG” was a flattering, yet comprehensive survey of the woman’s life and her contributions to our justice system. While her life, extraordinary as it is, may appear to be more dutiful than dramatic, her rising fame in recent years was enough for Hollywood to assay a theatrical feature about it. Director Mimi Leder’s “On the Basis of Sex” is the result, a glowing if predictable narrative about her promise.

English actress Felicity Jones is the casting choice for Ginsburg. The plot opens in 1956 when RBG was one the very few women allowed into Harvard Law School and extends to her first major sex discrimination case in 1970 involving—surprise--a man’s right to tax relief while taking time off a caregiver.

The arc of the story, written by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, incorporates her marrying the love of her life, the charming Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) and shows her giving up elements of her education and career to enable his. It also depicts her struggle to balance family and work (including a period when her husband fought cancer), her falling back on teaching law when she was unable to gain a position at a law firm, and, ultimately, her taking up the cause of Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), a bachelor denied deductions for caretaker expenses while caring for his ailing mother.

Her career glances off characters like the starchy Dean of Harvard Law Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterson), feminine activist Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), and a feisty lawyer with the ACLU, Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), among others. While Ruth appeals to the ACLU to take the Moritz case, Wulf rejects her, only to be convinced to give her a chance by Kenyon. The film climaxes in her defense of Moritz before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver based on sex discrimination (the case is invented for the film, though Ginsburg did take on a real case of sex discrimination against a man).

In the climatic courtroom scene, Jones as Ginsburg acquits herself reasonably well, showing her edginess at her first trial, then working up to an inspirational rebuttal that first intrigues, then convinces the federal judges before her. Though Ginsburg is from Brooklyn, Jones’s accent throughout is high-toned American, with only the word “low-yuh” (lawyer) betraying her origin. The film offers, indeed, a Hollywood ending, but it is mostly earned through Jones earnest performance (the DC preview audience that saw it clapped spontaneously when Ginsburg capped her final argument). Feel good, sure, feel great, not quite.

Jones is an appealing presence as Ginsburg, the quiet but persistent grinder. Her performance demonstrates that Ginsburg was never a radical or clamorous type, rather reserved but persistent, confident though diffident. The other roles fall into foreseeable types: Hammer is a male paragon, Wulf is a gruff wise guy, Bates is a brassy gal, and Waterson is a crusty curmudgeon. Not many surprises here.

Though there are few Washington scenes in “On the Basis of Sex.” The film does show Griswold and company strolling around the Grant Memorial in DC, and a final sequence has Ginsburg, presaging her eventual rise, striding up the steps of the Supreme Court only to disappear behind a pillar and...a nice surprise ending.

(The film, out for Christmas, is rated “PG-13” and runs 120 minutes)

(December 2018)