Adam McKay’s genre-hopping Vice (B) is a distant cousin to Oliver Stone’s similarly dark comedic Natural Born Killers, admirable for creative storytelling about issues ripped out of the headlines but a bit confounding in what it’s intending to explore about its caricatures. Christian Bale is as good as you’ve heard brilliantly inhabiting the enigmatic role of Dick Cheney at various points in his life; he’s best in his quietest moments utterly lacking in expected reactions (his multiple heart attacks are treated like an occasional case of the hiccups). Amy Adams is magnificent as his deeply humanizing wife Lynn; she’s in fact his beating heart and just as ruthless. Many others in the ensemble simply feel like stunt casting, although Sam Rockwell does indeed make a spiffy W. The plot largely explores the build-up of the case for unilateral presidential (and strong vice presidential) authority and for the Iraq War. McKay so blissfully plays with the conventions of cinema – never trust a closing credit scroll or that a sequence won’t show up in iambic pentameter – that he often loses track of his central themes. In the film’s straight down the barrel of a shotgun portrayal of Wyoming’s famous son who stays pretty resolute in his principles and doesn’t care if you like him or not for it, you can find traces of character to please both sides of the aisle. But largely it’s a blistering assessment of power and an indictment of what the Cheney/Bush (or was it the other way around?) administration did with said power when they had it. There wasn’t a big record to clear up here, and the film doesn’t attempt to rose color it.
Mimi Leader’s On the Basis of Sex (B) takes a page out of the Spielberg Lincoln playbook by telling the story of a pivotal player in American life through the lens of a single subplot that succinctly illuminates an individual’s singular belief system. In this new movie, that person is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (also chronicled in an awesome recent documentary RBG); and she’s splendidly embodied by Felicity Jones, playing the part with a quiet ferocity. Opposite a game Armie Hammer as her supportive lawyer husband and opposite old-fashioned adversaries played by the likes of Sam Waterston, Jones’s Ginsburg gets a lovely pedestal on which to shine. She’s most rousing in the moments in the margins, like when she notices she’s being fetishized by a make job interviewer or when she realizes her teen daughter has inherited her stubbornness. Her public performances lack some of their intended punch, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the case setting her destiny in action. The filmmakers were shrewd to choose a rather cut and dry example of discrimination on which to base the film’s central narrative; there were certainly pricklier scenarios they could have spotlighted which would have challenged the director and audience more. The storytelling is a bit predictable but still very lovingly rendered, and it’s a thrilling showcase of both actress and subject. In these times, there can hardly be enough films like this.
If you’ve self-selected as curious about Bryan Singer’s Queen rock and roll biopic Bohemian Rhapsody (B), you will undoubtedly find yourself floating around in ecstasy at how the troubled production turned out. A star is reborn onscreen and his Gaga is radio ready as Rami Malek fully inhabits the role of flamboyant lead singer Freddie Mercury. This “behind the music” style melodrama is too often color by numbers, but Malek – a power ballad powerhouse in every frame – helps the film transcend the limitations of the form and, well, break free. The story dispenses with a series of greatest hits moments such as band origin story, early studio time, world tours and setbacks and is equally enjoyable in moments of grandeur and intimacy. Told with a lack of sentimentality and with pleasurable details and detours, the film strips down myths and legends and aptly showcases how some of the best songs surfaced. It’s fun to see how some of the zanier tunes emerged and how on trend this unconventional band was during its brief life as a quartet of outcasts. There are a few music tracks such as “Who Wants to Live Forever?” and “Another One Bites the Dust” which take on added poignancy given Mercury’s struggles with relationships and fading health. By the time the film culminates in a reenactment of the band’s famous Live Aid reunion performance, the audience is bought in completely. The ensemble is solid with no extraordinary standouts except Malek who transforms body and voice and should emerge an awards season champion. Malek’s Freddie is certainly somebody to love in a surprisingly deft crowd pleaser.
Damien Chazelle, Hollywood’s celebrated enfant terrible who burst onto the scene like a supernova with Whiplash and La La Land, delivers exactly the opposite of his expected output with a brooding and tortuously technical biopic about Neil Armstrong, and it’s no wonder the sky-high critical and box office promises of First Man (C-) have remained unusually earthbound. Ryan Gosling’s interior performance as an Armstrong who is near-paralyzed by human interaction after suffering personal tragedy may be imbued with a north star of accuracy, but it’s just not what people go to inspiring movies about heroes to see, and all the sullen solemnity eclipses any attempts at showcasing the highs and lows of the early space program. Claire Foy’s similarly macabre take on his long-suffering spouse doesn’t help either in penetrating the pioneering spirit behind this dark side of the moon. The film lingers on highly technical elements of several space missions so long that by the time the Eagle lands, the viewer is just appreciative to get on with it. Perhaps the most annoying element of the film is its score by Chazelle’s jazzy frequent collaborator Justin Hurwitz, whose music sounds lost between a ghoulish fun-house and an Italian café for much of the film’s prodigious duration. A few supporting cast members such as Corey Stoll get some nice bits, but it doesn’t look fun sharing orbit with a sad sack protagonist. The film isn’t clear what it’s trying to say or even if Armstrong enjoyed his day in the sun on the moon. Adrift in storytelling and pacing, this linear lunar biopic shines brightly for just a few moments but remains largely a waning gibbous.
This is one of those declassified historical true stories like Argo that’s stranger than fiction and eerily prescient in its parallels to events of today. Pop cultural and historical provocateur Spike Lee’s brilliant 1970’s-set biopic BlacKkKlansman (A-) is an absorbing and gripping instant classic, the best non-documentary “joint” the writer/director has made in nearly two decades. The film’s success rides largely on John David Washington and Adam Driver, playing real-life undercover cops who mastermind and manifest a fascinating infiltration of white supremacists. Washington is charismatic and determined in his performance as Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department, determined to make a name for himself. Laura Harrier is sensational as a civil rights activist, and Topher Grace is amazing in a career trajectory redefining role as David Duke. The filmmaker is acutely aware of the power of cinema to change perceptions and dots the movie with bygone celluloid images and contemporary references that put his work in a march toward progress in representation. Aside from lensing a few moments that seem superfluous to the central themes, Lee has crafted a tight and taut thriller. He provides powerful point/counterpoint sequences weaving subversive themes and an unexpected premise into great storytelling.
Joe Wright’s historical biopic The Darkest Hour (B) takes few creative liberties as it chronicles Winston Churchill’s resolve to protect England from Hitler’s military, but the film is most notable because it affords Gary Oldman a rich fully inhabited central performance as the decisive and divisive prime minister. The direction is physically and metaphorically claustrophobic, shot in tight quarters and in confined conversations, to show the encroaching danger. The film is a straightforward companion piece to the propulsive Dunkirk, depicting much of the same time period, and the dandy drama The King’s Speech in which its protagonist monarch overcomes personal adversity and rises to the occasion. Honestly, aside from Oldman’s lived-in characterization of mania and mumbled and his arch to make his actions soar as profoundly as his oratory, Hour rarely gets great lift. The supporting characters including Kristin Scott Thomas and Stephen Dillane are unmemorable, and the film’s muted color palette of mostly dim interiors leaves the actions a bit in the shadows. It’s recommended for history buffs but offers few surprises or detours from the expected except for seeing exactly what the PM eats, drinks and dictates and how he one time rode on a train with commoners. There are parallels to contemporary leaders, whose nil by tweet stubbornness could tilt the world’s fortunes for war or peace. The present day overlay offers more prescient daydreams of adventurous storytelling than Wright actually commits to the screen.
Thoughts from outside The Tara theatre in Atlanta:
Benny Boom’s by the numbers Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez On Me (B-) is buoyed by Demetrius Shipp Jr. who is electric in the lead role and Danai Gurira who is effective in a supporting role as his political activist mother. Shakur the man spent his short 25 years as an entertainer, provocateur and man of contradictions, so it’s disappointing the film doesn’t get deeper under the surface at some critical junctures. The film starts as a bit of a superhero origin story, becomes a “behind the music” string of montages for a while and ultimately settles into a gangster epic as our hero joins Death Row Records. Shipp wears it all very well, even when his motivations aren’t always crystal clear. It’s still extraordinarily watchable, absorbing even, if fairly predictable and a bit overlong. Tinged with highlights of the rapper’s music and of period detail, the movie will take lots of folks back to the ’90’s and remind people about a magnificent talent taken away too soon.
In John Lee Hancock’s biopic of McDonald’s executive Ray Kroc, The Founder (B), the hunger of the protagonist is so palpable you can almost taste it. It’s a rather ruthless portrait of a business tycoon with Michael Keaton in fine serpentine form, part Midwest milkman charm, as wily as a Music Man, relentless as a cattle driver. While it’s ironic a man named Hancock fails to leave much of a signature in his ambivalent lens on the historical figure responsible for spreading the world’s most famous hamburger stand beyond its humble California origins, it is a fascinating business case and mostly compelling in its story (gulp) arch. As the humble and inventive McDonald’s brothers, Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are fabulous foils to Keaton’s Kroc. The film’s best sequence, although awkwardly placed in flashback, depicts the McDonald’s brothers designing a kitchen schematic in chalk on a blacktop, with crew “blocking the scene” like theatre directors would do. Kroc’s troubles on the domestic front including an estranged marriage (Laura Dern simply has to look sad a lot) and a fixation on a bottle of his own form of special sauce get short shrift as business machinations take center stage. The cynical themes about persistence and ambition trumping actual genius or invention, juxtaposed against sunny nostalgic art direction, are timely and prescient; but after more richly textured tales such as The Wolf of Wall Street and The Social Network, this film could have used a bit more super-sizing in ambition.
Welcome to Silver Screen Capture’s latest crossover with Ashley Williams of The Book Fetish Blog. She read the novel Hidden Figures, and we both saw the movie. I’m reviewing the film, she’s reviewing the book and we both answered a few questions. Check out her site for the book critique and read our joint Q&A right after my movie review.
Somewhere in the common area of a Venn diagram plotting the space race and race relations in the American Sixties is Theodore Melfi’s inspirational historical biopic Hidden Figures (B), a film grounded in three sterling performances achieving lift-off when it counts. Anchoring the narrative is Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson, the little-known African-American mathematician who helped calculate flight trajectories for Project Mercury and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon. Her trusty friends and colleagues at NASA – Octavia Spencer as computer whiz Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as engineer Mary Jackson – make history in their own right tackling heavy duty science while battling the last vestiges of segregation. The three women give dignified performances in a wholesome, family-friendly film that wanders for a while to find its tone and sometimes resorts to attitudes and platitudes over natural dialogue. Supporting performances are of little help, including Kevin Costner in one of his bland buzzcut roles and Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons as emotionally withholding bureaucrats. Mahershala Ali gets to shine as a persistent love interest, and Glen Powell charms as astronaut John Glenn. The director struggles a bit to keep appropriate focus on all three women and to put their historic accomplishments in context; some parts are rushed and others prolonged. Spencer is the easiest character to relate to and is the soul of the ensemble. There were moments the filmmakers could have amped up the drama for effect or opened up its world a bit more in cinematic terms. But the film’s shortcomings are forgiven because of its undeniable heart and the grace of its characters against undeniable odds.
Stephen Brown and Ashley Williams answer questions about the nonfiction book-to-movie translation!
Question: What made this an important story to tell?
Ashley: It’s an unknown or unrecognized part of history that celebrates minority women for major achievements, despite so many odds being stacked against them. It makes science and math heroic activities performed by smart women.
Stephen: The film is even more groundbreaking than its makers may have even known, what with glass ceilings, bathroom controversies and stereotypes still plaguing Modern America. The real-life characters were presented in a reverent, almost saintly portrayal. I almost wish the chronicle of their struggles had been a bit more visceral. These women were true trailblazers.
Question: What key points made it an effective tale to read or enjoy in the movie theatre?
Ashley: For me, reading the book, it was the reminders of segregation and that the women had to do so much more than white men to be seen as credible, even approaching equal. And the reminder that a success and advancement for any of these women was a victory for African-Americans as a whole- they were fighting for themselves and their community.
Stephen: The film valued sentimentality over genuine suspense. I found it approached the characters at surface level from a bit of a safe distance. But there are so few movies presenting such positive portrayals of women or African-American women that one can look past wishes that it would be a little less color-by-numbers.
Question: What characters fared the best in the translation?
Ashley: Katherine Johnson the best, I think. But really all three main characters- Dorothy, Mary and Katherine. The movie gave them a more vibrant personality that may not have always translated on the page, but all three were drawn true to the core aspects of the women in the book.
Stephen: Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy, in her bootstraps quest to become a supervisor, had the most satisfying story arch.
Question: How did the author/director bring history to life?
Ashley: The importance of the NACA and NASA missions- what it took to advance our fleet of aircrafts for military purposes, of course. But then the most important part was the effort to keep our astronauts safe. I’ve always loved stories of our first astronauts and the courage they must have had to take on something so new. But until now, I hadn’t really thought about all the effort and work it took behind the scenes, and Hidden Figures really explores that aspect.
Stephen: The actresses were superb, but I feel the director could have provided meatier material. We know going in that it’s a rather untold story, yet I’m still not sure I got in the veins of the characters to truly understand their verve and passion. Movies like this can have a slightly wax museum quality about them. I loved the story and even applauded at the end along with my fellow late-night theater-goers.
A peculiar fugue for both a nation in mourning and for a woman having a near out-of-body crisis to preserve the legacy of her slain husband, Pablo Larrain’s Jackie (B+) is a film that moves in mysterious ways. In the central role of Jacqueline Kennedy played out in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination, in flashbacks to an awkward White House tour and in a guarded interview framing device, Natalie Portman is perfection. The actress conveys urgency and dignity in her rigorous pursuit to control the narrative, preserve the majesty of the POTUS office and bottle the enduring notion of “Camelot.” All the while she internalizes her grief and personal needs in a complex performance of considerable modulation. Portman’s Jackie is keenly aware of history and that all eyes are on her. It’s a wondrous lead performance wrapped in how’d-they-do-that historical reenactments. Overall the film is an artsy, absorbing character study that gets richer as it reaches final act crescendos. Lorrain surrounds his solid lead actress with superb period detail, lush costuming and natural supporting players including Greta Gerwig as loyal assistant Nancy, Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy and John Hurt as an otherworldly priest. Ultimately it’s all about that classic American tenet of meeting the moment when challenges arrive that are bigger than ourselves.
An epic true tale of faith has met its match in a filmmaker for whom fire and brimstone are merely a prelude, and the power and singularity of his vision on screen cannot be denied. Director Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (B) is a tough mudder of an action movie, hearkening to the actor-turned-director’s own roots in Peter Weir’s WWI classic Gallipoli and imprinted with a world-weary POV applied to WWII’s Battle of Okinawa. Funneled through Gibson’s prism of gore and glory, the film is far from subtle but nonetheless audaciously moving. At the center of the proceedings – and key to its believability – is Andrew Garfield’s knockout portrayal of real-life American hero Desmond Doss, whose Christian beliefs prompted him to become a conscientious objector to violence simultaneous to enlisting in the military as a medic without a gun. Opening sequences feel like a Whitman’s Sampler of giddy nostalgia that would give Forrest Gump a run for his money in treacly sweetness. But soon after dispensing with some basic training melodrama, the film quickly detours into a fog and slog of war and a series of difficult decisions and riffs on themes of sacrifice and redemption. The director is adroit at putting the viewer in the heart of the action, relating to the protagonist’s fear and faith of being disarmed in the face of encroaching force. Aside from casting Vince Vaughn against type as a droll drill sergeant, the filmmaker rounds out his ensemble with sterling British and Australian actors ranging from Sam Worthington to Hugo Weaving to a relative newcomer, the delightful Teresa Palmer. The images of war are among the most suspenseful and sensational committed to screen, with the titular ridge, flanked with a mountain-high netting leading infantry to setbacks and triumphs, among the splendid set pieces. The sheer duration of some of the sequences dull their impact, but the fight choreography is second to none. Many will love the film’s messages but be turned off by the graphic violence; others repelled by Gibson will miss out on a poignant story. The auteur has once again found the pulse of an incredible and inspiring brave heart.
Reclaiming the title of D.W. Griffith’s controversial classic is the most subversive element of Nate Parker’s otherwise straightforward historical 2016 retelling of Nat Turner’s 1831 Virginia slave uprising, The Birth of a Nation (B-), but the timing of this true-life tale could not be more prescient given continuing struggles with race in today’s society. Because the protagonist is both slave and scholar and an active preacher, the film brings up big themes about the nature of vengeance. It doesn’t always fuse those themes into a consistent tone, though. For a first time writer/director also in the lead role, Parker is a bit over his head; and his passable acting is largely enhanced by the gravity of his character and because he is opposite a very wooden Armie Hammer as the plantation owner (with unwieldy beard and novelty teeth). Hammer has evolved very little since his leaden Lone Ranger. In fact, the acting overall is a weak spot as many of the underwritten characters (especially the women) feel more like symbols than fully fleshed-out individuals. The film gains stirring resonance long after it has lost narrative momentum. Where’s the storytelling fire found in the final twenty minutes during the rest of the film? Aside from the gruesome rebellion itself, the film soars in a sequence when scriptures are used to argue both sides of the slavery argument. I couldn’t help but think how good the exchange would have been if embodied by more seasoned performers. Nonetheless the cinematography is intermittently gorgeous and Henry Jackman’s chorus-tinged score haunting. It’s an important film and a vital story to tell; it just could have been a bit stronger cinematically. But the first-time helmer should get some major credit for his brazen first choice in subject matter.