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.
None of the characters in Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya (C) are going to win top honors in The Nice Capades, but I give the actors credit for their commitment to a biopic that is equally uneven in its tone and its point of view. The faux documentary style largely works in chronicling the real-life tale of a conspiracy to injure a competitor in the figure skating world, but the knowing commentary breaking the third wall mid-action sequences is a misfire. Margot Robbie is gloriously tragic as driven athlete Tonya Harding, and she gets solid, stone cold support from Allison Janney and Sebastian Stan as her abusive mother and husband. The funny bits aren’t darkly comic enough to counterbalance what is largely a tale of domestic and psychological abuse. The parts don’t add up to a cogent enough theme; and once they do, the director spells it out a bit too obviously. It doesn’t pulse with enough love for its protagonist to pierce the ice on the surface and actually melt misconceptions or your heart. And it doesn’t add all that much to the “well, this is what America is now” canon.
Martin McDonagh’s unconventional revenge drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (A) is one of the finest films of the year, upending expectations about a collection of well drawn characters in Small Town, America. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell give rich performances as a grieving mother of a murdered teenage girl and the seemingly incompetent local policemen she coerces into action to solve her daughter’s cold case. McDormand in particular delivers a performance for the ages, showcasing an indomitable spirit as she waged a grassroots campaign to right her family’s fissure in a world that’s gone out of its Ebbing mind. Lucas Hedges and John Hawkes are superb as her son and ex-husband, and Peter Dinklage adds a droll turn as a mysterious townsman. McDonagh maintains a dark comedic tone as he plumbs thorny issues in a shadowy microcosm of the justice system. For folks who enjoyed Hell or High Water, Fargo or this director’s own In Bruges, this will be your film to see this awards season.
An absurdist sci-fi fantasy, a cunning comedy and a metaphorical meditation on the oddities of being a single person on the planet earth, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster (B) is a beguiling think piece that both advances the contention that Colin Farrell has become one of film’s great comic actors (a great companion piece to In Bruges) and the notion that a puzzle of a movie can still be a jigsaw short of its razor-sharp intentions. Farrell plays a sad-sack single who checks in to a rigorous retreat center where guests either pair up with a companion based on a very superficial physical trait or permanently transform into an animal. This droll, deadpan fable is largely able. Alas the episodic structure doesn’t provide much of a compass to guide viewers to where this is all heading (nor does the ending); but like Her, Gattaca or Dogville, it follows some intriguing internal logic. The dark comedy largely delivers; and even with some final act problems, it is a remarkable production that will stimulate discussion. Farrell’s fussy scruffiness, the craziness of his road to wellville and some fierce supporting characters (Ariane Labed as a hotel maid, Ben Whishaw and John C. Reilly as fellow guests at the recovery residence, Léa Seydoux as a freedom fighter and Rachel Weisz as a mystery woman) buoy this indie original.
Quentin Tarantino’s hybrid western mystery gangster epic The Hateful Eight (B+) has all the trappings of the writer/director’s best work from outstanding ensemble acting to wicked dialogue to twisty plot conventions to pulpy action and inventive use of music. To some extent, it’s at times be too much of a retread of his most common conventions. Filmed as a Cinerama presentation in classic 70mm Panavision with gorgeous Ennio Morricine overture and an intermission, the saturated colors of this post-Civil War tale come vividly to life. Unlike his experiments with grindhouse double features, this homage to cinematic history pays off. As long as it is, it’s a film that nonetheless will reward repeat viewings. The pre-intermission proceedings appear to be too preoccupied with exposition and campfire tales before Act Two truly delivers the mixtape of Agatha Christie style mystery and vicious bloodbath that fans of the auteur will crave. Kurt Russell is impressive as a villainous vermin channeling John Wayne on a bad day, and Samuel L. Jackson steals the show as a charismatic bounty hunter with a surprising past and nearly all the film’s most iconic lines. Walton Goggins is a revelation as the sheriff of Red Rock with unlikely cunning, and Jennifer Jason Leigh unfurls a crackerjack of a performance as a duplicitous prisoner. Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern and Channing Tatum are all effective in their roles. The only weak link, possibly from misdirection is Demián Bichir. Expect extreme language and violence and vintage Tarantino. It falls just short of some of his tighter and tidier work, but it’s more splendid fire in his canon.
Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino describe the “Roadshow” engagement and technology behind the film on TrailerAddict.
Films such as Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Altman’s The Player and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive are some of the most definitive movies in the “gritty inside Hollywood” canon; and really, the always interesting David Cronenberg’s latest work, Maps to the Stars (B-), doesn’t even belong in the same discussion with them. But as a bleak portrait of just how soulless and bizarre Tinseltown can be, it’s really quite a fascinating freakshow recommended only for those perversely fascinated with the underbelly of glamour and glitz. Julianne Moore plays washed-up actress “Havana Segrand,” whose character name alone gives you all the clues you need to know that the film will occasionally be over-the-top ridiculous. Moore plays against type and blurs every line between public life and intimacy as we see her in astonishing rawness playing a callow climber. She’s a touch point between several characters in a dysfunctional family including Mia Wasikowska as a whack-job returning to town after a mysterious absence, her child-actor turned rehab-teen brother played deliciously by Evan Bird and their dad (a miscast) John Cusack who is somewhere between psycho and therapist as a self-help guru. It’s a cautionary tale without answers and a puzzle box of an ensemble drama without an easy resolution. Shades of a less well thought out Magnolia hang over the multi-story proceedings like the story it could have been, with a pinch of Cronenberg’s own 1996 sex-in-car-wrecks drama Crash thrown into the stew, sending anyone without the patience for this type of thing running for the Hollywood hills, the exit door or the eject button. Still, despite its messiness, its baffling final act and its complete lack of mainstream appeal, it was an intriguing pulp curiosity and kept me fascinated throughout. Cronenberg invites his audiences to be the ultimate voyeurs, a notion repeated in his best work (History of Violence, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Eastern Promises, Videodrome – someone please give this guy an award already!) and even in his experiments (oddities such as Naked Lunch and eXistenZ). His Brundlefly mash-up with a Hollywood tell-all lends the film its sly signature. The movie is crude, tonally jumbled and often half-baked in comparison to his modern masterpieces, but it still plumbs magnificent depths. There’s no GPS system that will take you to where you’re gonna go here, but I liked the journey just fine.
First things first, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s tragicomic backstage character drama Birdman (B) is often brilliantly bonkers, and Michael Keaton gives a command performance at the film’s core as a fading Hollywood film star trying to reinvent himself on Broadway while suffering an all-out mental breakdown. With long tracking shots through claustrophobic corridors, a percussive jazz score rat-tat-tatting through the spiraling series of devolving events and tidbits of comic book flourish and fantasy that would be at home in a Terry Gilliam film, this dark delving into the damaged psyche of a thespian on the brink of obscurity pounds its themes with a bit too much prescience. The film comes most alive in its moments of inspired mania that spring from real-life conflicts such as dealing with harsh critics and handling acting egos with kid gloves. Quite frankly, supporting performances by Ed Norton as an obnoxious actor in the on-stage drama and Emma Stone as Keaton’s real-life daughter steal the show a bit with audacious turns of their own. Stone gets a great soliloquy encapsulating the essence of modern-day relevance. The film is a brittle amalgam of too many themes boiling in one big pot; but its insider’s take on exorcising one’s demons, conquering the temptations of fame and reconciling the notions of love and admiration is likely to appeal to artists’ temperaments more than the mainstream. It’s a treat to see Keaton get to sink his teeth into such a flight-of-fancy performance, and both West Coast and East Coast entertainment industries get their share of skewering in this uneven but often shrewd satire.
It is uncertain if the story takes place in a theatre, in a crypt or in a metaphor as an arrogant writer/director gets his comeuppance from an unexpected auditioning actress in director Roman Polanski’s French language movie Venus in Fur (B+). A superb Mathieu Amalric is pretty clearly channeling the controversial auteur himself; and Polanski’s real-life wife Emmanuelle Seigner is sensational as the titular seductress. The threadbare tinderbox of a plot could likely be described as a battle of the sexes as it dishes out delicious dialogue to each of its participants. A master of controlling tight quarters and portraying power play brinksmanship, the director challenges himself with a talky narrative nearly all set in one room; but he takes his characters on a visceral, intellectual and sometimes sexy journey that transports them completely. Clever lighting, pacing and wordplay render the proceedings more cagey than stagey, as if the characters from the Before Sunrise movies were having a mythological fever dream. It’s a late-career gem from one of film’s enduring provocateurs.
Equal parts extraordinary and exhausting, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (B+) is a cynical cautionary tale wrapped in a fetching fantasia of decadent and grotesque true-life characters. Aside from the master director stunningly realizing his vision, Leonardo DiCaprio sinks his teeth into his role with grandeur. I don’t think the actor has ever been in such command of his craft, and it may be the greatest performance he has ever given. Somewhere in the second, third, maybe fourth act, however, the storytelling teeters a bit into true-crime formula. But there are so many devilish parts to relish. The film features the most seminal sequence involving stairs since Battleship Potemkin and some of the most darkly comic moments set to film involving addiction to drugs and dollars. No detail gets missed, from an ironic playing of “Mrs. Robinson” to fake get-rich-quick commercials. There are prolonged vignettes so good they needed to remain fully intact, but there are just too many of them. Scorsese wields a three-hour sledgehammer when subtler tools could have made a bigger statement. All in all, this is Leo’s tour de force and quite possibly the ultimate indictment of corporate corruption gone amuck.
Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (B+) is an audacious piece of revisionist history that imagines what WWII might have been like if a couple of clever factions of bounty hunters, cinephiles and revenge seekers could have tried to kill Hitler at a movie screening. Leave it to Tarantino to take such a high-concept idea to such delicious detail and cast his film with such relish, especially with Christoph Waltz as a particularly menacing Nazi officer and Brad Pitt as a motormouthed mercenary. Some moments are uneven, but overall, this one hits the mark.
At around an hour and a half, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (B-) is a quirky trifle from a director who’s accustomed to directing an opus. Adam Sandler’s character is a schmuck with rage issues, but he’s paired with the super-sweet Emily Watson in a romance. To the tune of Jon Brion’s harmonium and through bizarre sequences with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and others, this is PTA’s version of After Hours. Sandler glows from the great writing and direction.
Related article: I reference Adam Sandler’s acclaimed role in this Wall Street Journal story.
Alexander Payne’s Election (A) is a hilariously dark comedy set in high school about the lengths one student (Reese Witherspoon) will go to rise to the top ranks of student government. Witherspoon’s “Tracy Flick” can heretofore be a metaphor for overly motivated political animals. Matthew Broderick is amusing as the teacher who may find he’s created a monster. Chris Klein is fun as the jock rival for Flick’s political ambitions.