Tag Archives: B

VICE

Producer: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Megan Ellison, Kevin J. Messick, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay
Director: Adam McKay
Writer: Adam McKay
Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Jesse Plemons, Lily Rabe, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Adam Bartley, Bill Camp, Don McManus, Matthew Jacobs, Kyle S. More, Joseph Beck, Aidan Gail and Shea Whigham
Studio: Annapurna Pictures

B

Ambition does not ensure accomplishment; that was true of Dick Cheney, and it also applies to Adam McKay’s uneven film about him. “Vice” boasts an exceptional performance by Christian Bale and is consistently interesting, occasionally even brilliant, but also overstuffed and rather disjointed. The result is a bit of a mess, though a fascinating one—an exuberant satirical portrait of a bland apparatchik who morphs into the dictatorial power behind the presidential throne and wields the authority he’s purloined with quiet ruthlessness.

Not that, as McKay presents him, Cheney was always ambitious. As “Vice” opens, he’s presented as little more than a hard-drinking hooligan who’s retreated back to his home state of Wyoming after flunking out of Yale. He has a job—as a telephone lineman—but he’s the sort of wild man who gets into bar fights and trouble with the law. It’s only an ultimatum from his wife Lynne (Amy Adams), who threatens to leave him if he doesn’t shape up, that forces a change of attitude.

The movie briefly flash-forwards to 9/11, when Cheney is shown taking the reins of government after the Twin Tower attacks, issuing orders in a way that shows he’s really the one in charge, not scatterbrained George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), in order to contrast his inauspicious beginnings with the “Darth Vader” figure he eventually becomes. It then reverts to 1968, when the rather bovine young man, determined to meet Lynne’s expectations, has come to Washington as a congressional intern and falls in with the ostentatiously power-mad congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who becomes his mentor and patron.

McKay’s screenplay proceeds from that point in roughly chronological order as Cheney follows Rumsfeld up the Beltway ladder under Nixon, eventually reaching the position of White House Chief of Staff during the Ford Administration, though it periodically interrupts the semi-straightforward approach for additional flash-forwards to the post-9/11 years and gussies up the narrative with hectic edits and insertions.

Though he’s sidelined when Ford loses to Carter in 1976, Cheney moves on to a Wyoming congressional seat (won for him largely by Lynne, who campaigns for her lethargic-looking husband when he’s felled by a heart attack). He then becomes Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush before moving into private life as CEO of Halliburton after Bush is defeated for re-election by Bill Clinton.

It’s at this point that McKay tosses in perhaps his cleverest touch, falsely ending the picture with a credits crawl, suggesting that Cheney might never have resumed a life in politics had Gore succeeded Clinton in 2000. But of course reality reasserts itself as George W. Bush approaches Cheney with the idea of being his running-mate; and though he says no, he offers to serve as a one-man search team, and uses that post to snare and reel Bush in (his love of fly fishing being one of the picture’s motifs), not only taking the job himself but persuading Bush—portrayed by Rockwell as pretty much a buffoon—to give him a wide-ranging portfolio. He also outmaneuvers his supposed boss in assembling an effective if unscrupulous team, and winds up in many respects, McKay argues, the de facto president who pretty much governs from the shadows after 9/11, controlling policy behind the façade of Bush’s leadership while using and dismissing his comrades as necessary, including Rumsfeld.

McKay tells Cheney’s story in contrasting rhythms, often presenting Cheney moving in an extremely deliberate fashion while events swirl around him in whirlwind montages of found footage, staged recreations and cheekily invented passages (at one point, he and Lynne have a Shakespearean bedroom conversation). In addition to the fly-fishing motif, there’s a recurrent emphasis on Cheney’s succession of heart attacks—presented in grimly humorous fashion. And McKay provides a narrator, played by Jesse Plemons, to tie things together and explain the course of events (though captions are also used to that end); his identity will be divulged only toward the close.

There’s a sense of sheer playfulness to some of what McKay does, but more often the humor has an acidic edge. (A scene in which Alfred Molina appears as a waiter to rattle off legal options for justifying extreme actions like items on a menu is a perfect example.) And though there are virtual cameos by lots of subordinate characters—Colin Powell (Tyler Perry), Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk), Condoleeza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton), Paul Wolfowitz (Eddie Marsan), Frank Luntz (Adam Bartley), Karl Rove (Joseph Beck), Roger Ailes (Kyle S. More), Antonin Scalia (Matthew Jacobs) and many others—the focus is definitely on the trio of Dick, Lynne, and Rumsfeld (even Bush plays a relatively minor role).

Bale offers as stunning a physical transformation as Gary Oldman did in “Darkest Hour,” and he captures Cheney’s quirks—the weird sidelong movement of the mouth, the methodically boring speech pattern—perfectly. If the performance doesn’t really go much deeper than impersonation, it has to be admitted it’s brilliant impersonation, and the lack of depth is the fault not of the actor but McKay’s script, which is content to skim the surface in a darkly amusing way. The script does add some nuance with a thread about the protective stance Cheney takes toward his daughter Mary (Alison Pill), who’s gay—until political considerations related to the aspirations of his older daughter Liz (Lily Rabe) intrude. Adams, meanwhile, endows Lynne with steeliness as well as well-placed, calculated gregariousness, but Carell’s Rumsfeld is pretty much a one-note blowhard.

Among the technical crew, special recognition must go to editor Hank Corwin, who manages to give McKay’s riotous, unwieldy collages at least the semblance of coherence. But the other major members of the team—production designer Patrice Vermette, costumer Susan Matheson, cinematographer Greg Fraser—also do yeoman service in realizing the writer-director’s rambunctious vision.

“Vice” is sharp and audacious, though also snarky and at times simply juvenile. Those who still consider Dick Cheney the prince of darkness will love it. Others may find it a tad exhausting.

AQUAMAN

Producer: Peter Safran and Rob Cowan
Director: James Wan
Writer: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall
Stars: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Ludi Lin, Michael Beach, Randall Park and Graham McTavish
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

B

Who could have imagined that of all the superheroes in the Superman-led comic stable, the fellow most ridiculed by fandom over the years would anchor one of the most enjoyable movies in the so-called DC Universe? Along with Ezra Miller’s Flash, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman made an auspicious debut in the just-okay “Justice League,” but he gets a full-fledged origin episode in James Wan’s eponymous movie, which happily jettisons the dark, brooding atmosphere that infused Zach Snyder’s vision for the franchise in favor of a lighter, breezier approach akin to the one that made “Thor: Ragnarok,” Taika Waititi’s entry in the Marvel Universe, so much fun.

Like Thor in that movie, Aquaman is portrayed as a slightly dim hunk of beefcake, and Momoa goes with the flow, so to speak. But “Aquaman” is notable not just for its general good spirits, but for creating a shimmering undersea world that’s not only distinctive but strangely attractive, in its own way as engaging as the one in “The Little Mermaid.”

Of course, one must still deal with the fact that “Aquaman” remains, in narrative terms, an obligatory first chapter in what it’s hoped will become a long-running series. Arthur Curry is what would once have been called a half-breed, the offspring of human lighthouse keeper Tom (Temuera Morrison) and Princess Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) of Atlantis, who’s wound up on his dock. Their happiness together is shattered when goons from the undersea realm arrive to drag her back, leaving the forlorn Tom to raise Arthur on his own; we learn later on that she suffered an unhappy fate back home.

The boy grows into a brawny guy who’s his dad’s rough drinking buddy but also a heroic fellow who uses the powers inherited from his mother, and honed secretly under the tutelage of Atlantis’ wise grand vizier Nuidis Vulko (Willem Dafoe), to keep order on the high seas. In that capacity he foils an attempt by David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to commandeer a Russian submarine; in the melee Kane’s father Jesse (Michael Beach) dies, stoking his hatred of Aquaman.

But David has not been acting on his own. He’s in the employ of Arthur’s half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson), who aims to use the subs for a fake attack on Atlantis to justify the war he wants to undertake against the land-dwelling world—and unite the various undersea kingdoms under his leadership as Ocean Master. But Princess Mera (Amber Heard), daughter of Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), king of one of the other realms Orm wants to enlist under his banner and unhappily betrothed to him, approaches Arthur, begging him to challenge his half-brother for the crown to avoid a needless conflict.

Doing so, however, will necessitate Arthur’s receiving further training from Mera in the art of Atlantean combat. It will also require the two of them to undertake a quest to find the Trident of Atlan, the first king of Atlantis, which possesses special powers. The combined scepter and weapon is like the sword in the stone: it marks the true ruler and also provides him with the strength to overcome his adversaries, who include not only Orm and his allies, but also Kane, whom Atlantean technology has transformed into the formidable Black Manta.

This is hardly the most innovative plotline imaginable, and some elements of it—like the appearance of a huge sea creature that might well have been called the Kraken but instead is named Karathen—represent a reach too far. But it does allow for plenty of CGI-laced chases and battles, and for a parade of lovely above-wave locations that cinematographer Mort Weisinger, shooting in the IMAX format, takes full advantage of. Still, it’s the abundant underwater sequences, crafted by a small army of effects wizards, that really catch the eye. The images they’ve created add a touch of genuine magic to the proceedings, even if the action sequences set against them can get somewhat muddied amid the swirls.

Moreover, Wan and screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall keep things generally light, accentuating the farfetched tale’s humorous possibilities, especially in terms of the characterization of Aquaman himself, who comes across as something of a likable but sometimes exasperatingly dense hunk. Momoa plays him nicely, balancing Arthur’s beefy confidence and reckless naiveté, and the supporting cast is mostly excellent—Heard strong as well as beautiful, Dafoe appropriately smooth and Abdul-Mateen properly surly. Kidman and Morrison both make the most of the opportunities the script affords them as Arthur’s very different parents, and Lundgren, who along with “Creed II” is enjoying something of a career renaissance, overcomes his makeup to make an impression. Only Wilson seems a bit mismatched as Orm; his natural blandness doesn’t allow the character’s full villainy to flourish.

One shouldn’t ovepraise “Aquaman.” Basically it’s just another in what’s become a seemingly endless stream of superhero movies; but its cheeky sense of humor and striking visuals make it a better-than-average example of the genre.