Vice (2018)

Vice

Christian Bale as Former Vice President Dick Cheney.

 

Very few actors do as well as Christian Bale when it comes to immersing into a character, and his take on Dick Cheney in Vice is no exception. It is a knockout performance, but it is one that I wished were in a better movie.

The film begins by telling us that the makers of the film did the best they could since Cheney is such a private man. As is the case with most biopics nowadays, we get a bit of jumping back and forth thru points of history (though thankfully it is not too confusing). We see the beginning of the marriage of Dick and his wife Lynn (Amy Adams, who always does even better work when working with Bale), his meeting of Donald Rumsfeld (an oddly cast Steve Carrell), and his workings all the way to the post of VP to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell).

The biggest flaw I feel the movie does it is goes for more exaggeration over realism. That is not to say some of the exaggerated parts aren’t funny (such as rolling credits a little too soon). I knew little about Cheney going in, but enough to know how much the man has suffered from heart problems over the years. Eventually, too many heart attack jokes can be pushing it.

Still, none of this takes away from the acting, and while most are well cast (even Tyler Perry does well as Colin Powell), it is clearly all to show more proof how ridiculously talented Christian Bale is as an actor. Yes, the make up department did a fabulous job, but acting is far beyond make up or even imitation. It is about connecting to one’s inner feelings, which Bale is always great at doing (though at some times, it seems he isn’t. This is not because he can’t, but because Cheney struggles to).

Parents, the movie is rated R for good reason, as it is filled with swearing and footage of violence. High School and up.

It seems that the only thing harder than playing Dick Cheney would be making a film about him. Director Adam Mckay (who won an Oscar for helping write 2015’s The Big Short) has given a movie that, even with a wonderful lead performance (and a nice post credit scene), seems a bit too off-putting.

 

Overall: Three and a Half Stars ***1/2

Green Book (2018)

Green Book

Tony (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali)

There is a sense of some old school magic in the real life story inspired film Green Book. This magic appears in (nearly) everything from the performances to the chemistry to the message to the drama as well as comedy. It has been a while since I had a warm glow inside after leaving the theater.

I doubt I was alone when I heard of the title. It refers to an actual book that was distributed in the Jim Crow era for African-Americans, letting them know which places would allow them to visit if they were to travel in the southern states. This is one of the last things given to Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian bouncer hired by musician Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to aid him through his musical tour in the south for two months. Lip assures him that, down south, “there’s gonna be problems.”

There should be no surprise when you realize the heart of the movie is the chemistry between Mortensen and Ali. While Ali (who won an Oscar for 2016’s Moonlight) is much more subtle and nuanced, Mortensen (someone I always thought was very underrated as an actor) is much more out there. He eats a lot (and I mean a lot), probably does not know how to whisper, and can be rather ignorant at times. That does not, however, mean he is stupid. We don’t laugh at the racism, but at the situation in which they are said. Both actors give rather wonderful performances in their own right with each of their characters showing multiple layers as the film progresses.

Parents, this is one of the rare times I actually applaud the MPAA, because they could have easily made it rated R but thankfully it is PG-13. There is swearing (I think two F bombs and one use of the N word), a little violence (nothing graphic) and no real sexuality (aside from one scene that I am not sure if it was needed for the story). Middle School and above.

One of the bigger surprises is knowing that the film was directed by Peter Farrelly, who is more well-known for comedies like Dumb and Dumber (1994) and There’s Something about Mary (1998). Green Book (which Farrelly wrote with Brian Hayes Currie and Tony’s real life son Nick, who also has a minor role) has given a film that does have some speed bumps on the way, but delivers a film that crescendos to a very satisfying film that will make you want to go back and experience more than once.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Can you ever forgive me

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) does what she can to survive.

I made a startling realization about half way thru Can You Ever Forgive Me?: It was the first time I had seen Melissa McCarthy on the big screen (I would later find out the only other film I had seen her in was 2010’s abysmal  Life as We know it, which I don’t remember her being in. I take it she would be thankful for me for that.)

Oh, I have seen plenty of her clips online from movies like Bridesmaids (which she got an Oscar nomination for) as well as her skits on Saturday Night Live, so I knew enough going into this film that this would be a change of pace for her. Change of pace is a gross understatement. The fact that her Lee Israel swears a lot is really the only thing even close to resembling Melissa McCarthy. The performance is nothing short of revolutionary, and will surely be in the Oscar conversations for the next couple months.

Based on a true story, Israel is a struggling writer living in New York in the early 1990s, whose books have been all but forgotten. Her biography on Fanny Brice is a dead end, there are an abundance of flies in her apartment, and her cat is sick. Her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) invites Lee to her party, and we see right away people skills are not in Lee’s skill set.

By accident, Lee comes across the letter of a famous writer, and realizes she can do well at impersonating them as she writes fake letters, later selling them to collectors. The only person she informs her plan to is her homosexual writer friend Jack Hock (an equally great performance by Richard E. Grant), who is not the best drug dealer out there. The chemistry between Grant and McCarthy is near magic.

The rest of the supporting cast is spot  on (including Ben Falcone, real life husband of McCarthy), but the unsung heroes in my mind are screenwriters Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener. The dialogue is as near perfect as it can be. They deserve Oscar consideration right along Grant and McCarthy.

Parents, the R rating is justified, as there is a lot of swearing that I would think no middle schooler has heard before in context (at least I hope not). There is no sex in the movie, but we do see some rear male nudity. High School and above.

The title of the film comes from a letter from author Dorothy Parker, one of the many authors that Lee Israel tried to impersonate. In a way, it is also fitting to some of the roles Melissa McCarthy has had throughout the years (I know, I never saw them, but I can only speculate from what I have heard). It may have taken some time, but after her performance here, I can safely say I can forgive her.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

Beautiful Boy (2018)

Beautiful Boy

The only thing nearly as strong as the father/son relationship is the chemistry of the actors.

 

I left Beautiful Boy with a decent amount of disappointment, mainly due to director Felix Van Groeningen, also a contributor to the screenplay. A lot of the story (especially the first half) is rather jumbled in the way of timelines. Yet that does not stop me from recommending the film.

The film tells the true story of Dave Scheff (Steve Carell), whose son Nic (Timothee Chalamet) has recently graduated High School yet dived into the world of drugs (mainly crystal Meth). He spends time between his dad’s house and his mom (Amy Ryan). His dad has remarried Karen (Maura Tierney), with whom he has two kids.

I mentioned before how the time lines are jumbled, since we see Nic at different stages in his life. It would be okay to show different times in Nic’s life, if it made sense to the viewer, which it sadly did not for me.

It is clear as day that the film’s saving grace is the acting. Regardless of screen time, every actor puts their best foot forward (even those in small roles like Oscar winner Timothy Hutton). Carrell first started out as a comedy actor (and still does so very well), yet he managed to cross the line into drama with such ease it is hard to sometimes remember we are looking at Michael Scott or Brick Tamland . His performance is (for the most part) very subtle and nuanced, playing a dad who clearly loves his son, even to the point that he would share a joint with him.

Chalemet is the stand out. He had a breakout year last year with his Oscar nominated work in Call me by your name as well as Lady Bird (both Best Picture nominees). When watching him in Beautiful Boy, it is hard to find any of those characters here. It is the true definition of sublime acting, proving he could very well be at the Oscars again soon.

Parents, the R rating is deserved. There is a good amount of swearing, plenty of thematic drug use, and one sex scene that seemed rather tacked on. High School and above.

There should be no doubt how troubling drug addiction (or any for that matter) is to a soul. Everyone in their life suffers as a result. This is one of the main things that make Beautiful Boy worth watching. That and the powerful performances. I only wish the approach was different.

Overall: Three Stars ***

First Man (2018)

First Man

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is the First Man in line of the first day of training at NASA.

It should be noted from the get go that Neil Armstrong did make it to the moon and became the first human to walk on the surface. It is not a spoiler, since we all know that going in, but as a way of saying how wonderful the film First Man really is. There are many areas of tension throughout that we need to remember it will be okay for Armstrong in the end, even if it seems like the odds are impossible, which they probably were close to.

Director Damien Chazelle (fresh off his Oscar win for La La Land) has made a movie that truly is on par with classics like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff. With a screenplay by Josh Singer (who won an Oscar for Spotlight) that is based on the book by James R. Hansen, First Man starts off where it should: high above ground. We meet Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as he is in the mist of being an engineer and pilot. After suffering a blow to his family, we see him and his wife Janet (Claire Foy, the recent Emmy winner of The Crown) as he is chosen (along with many others) to be the pilots to help NASA reach the moon before the Russians.

Others in the cast include Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, Jason Clarke as Ed White, Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell (the role Tom Hanks played in Apollo 13), Lukas Haas as Mike Collins, and Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin. This is just a handful of a supporting cast who bring an unsung backbone to the film’s success.

As the main role, Ryan Gosling gives a rather subdued, yet powerful performance. This, of course, is because Armstrong was known to be a very humbled, quiet man (unlike Buzz Aldrin, which Corey Stoll plays perfectly). It is also a crucial move for Gosling since the performance by Claire Foy as his wife is much more direct and demanding. It is most clear in scenes such as her yelling at Slayton for turning off her radio, and when she is telling her husband not that he should talk to their sons before the mission, but that he will talk to their sons. Like Gosling, Foy gives Oscar caliber work.

However, the one I feel who deserves the most praise is Chazelle. After Whiplash and La La Land, it is clear as day that this guy is one of the best young talents in film today. I read a user review of the film online saying how the movie was too slow, which is ludicrous. Patience is something any movie goer must have to appreciate film as an art, and the pacing of the film here is pitch perfect (it hardly seemed to drag, even at two hours and twenty-one minutes. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (also a La La Land Oscar winner) gives us not the light we as an audience would need, but the light the characters would have (in other words, he basically seems to use natural light). This is one of many reasons why First Man makes you feel as much as an astronaut as a film has. In Armstrong’s Gemini mission, there is one sequence that has stayed with me more than anything from the film, particularly one sound effect. This and the rest of the sound effects are as spine chilling as those I witnessed when I saw The Exorcist.

Parents, there is no sexual content at all (aside from some kissing). There is some swears (one, maybe two F bombs), and a lot of thematic material (especially with the result of the one main Apollo mission that ended tragically). Still, I would like to believe Middle Schoolers and up would be totally fine with this film.

I conclude with a plea. Recently, First Man had gotten a lot of negative press because the moon landing did not feature Armstrong planting the American Flag on the moon (I still like the fact that Gosling found it humourous that he is Canadian). There are plenty of shots of American flags in the film, and we do see the flag on the moon as well (though not the actual planting of it). It is up to you if you want to miss this film because of one minor thing that they left out. If you still insist on not seeing it, I would say undoubtably that you are missing one extraordinary film experience.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Blackkklansman

Phillip “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is somewhat suckered into Ron Stallworth’s (John David Washington) plan of infiltrating the local branch of the KKK.

It should come as no surprise that the brilliance of BlacKkKlansman is mainly because it is made by Spike Lee. Not only could this movie be made well by another director, but I don’t think any other director would have guts to make it.

Set in the 1970s, the film tells the true story of a new African-American police officer in Colorado (which I never once thought of as being a state with racism) named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, real life son of Denzel). After some time of working in the records room, he gets his chance at going undercover. He eventually finds himself convincing a KKK member (Ryan Eggold) to give him a chance at becoming a member. It is here where he enlists Flip (Adam Driver) to cover for him in the person to person meetings, while Ron handles the phone conversations. It works so well they even get to convincing the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (a nearly unrecognizable Topher Grace, and not just because he has a mustache). There is also a side romance between Ron and Patrice (Laura Harrier), a local college student known for being vocal about her race.

If reading this review (or seeing the trailer) has made you feel a little guilty on laughter, don’t worry, because there will be a lot of it. The characters know they are in a situation that is ludicrous, but go thru it anyway. There are many characters that do come across as somewhat stereotypical, mainly that of the married couple Felix and Connie (Jasper Paakkonen and Ashlie Atkinson, respectfully). Still, there are others who do actually seem like they are right in their life choices, even if that is racism.

All the acting is stellar. Washington does show some signs of his (arguably more famous) dad, but still makes it his own performance. I am now becoming more and more convinced that Adam Driver will be able to have a much more standout career as a talented actor and not just the guy who killed Han Solo (I would say spoiler, but you should know this by now). One of the most dramatic moments comes when two characters are making speeches. The first is David Dukes (again, was that really Topher Grace?), and the second is an old African-American survivor telling his story of racism. He is played by Harry Belafonte, who gives a prime example of making a great scene out of little screen time.

Parents, the movie is, of course, rated R (as almost every Spike Lee film is). There is no sexual scenes (just talking) and some violence. The R rating is mainly due to the language (mainly the N word, which is spouted an infinite number of times). I would say High School and above, but I should mention I did see at least one child in my screening who could not have been more than ten years old.

Now to the ending of the film, which is one that will be talked about for a long time. True, it does get political (it should not surprise us how Lee would feel about President Trump, especially when you see the cameo in the first five minutes of the film). Nevertheless, the film does end the way it should, stating that this problem of racism and hatred is still rampant today, and is right in front of our eyes.

Kind of reminds me of that quote from Rodney King.

Overall: Five Stars *****

My Left Foot (1989)

My Left Foot

Christy Brown (Daniel Day Lewis), feeling proud of stealing coal.

 

As someone who is a dominate right-handed person, I can’t imagine doing anything with just one foot, but the left foot by itself is unthinkable. Yet that is what Christy Brown had to do for his life. He did not live to see My Left Foot (he died in 1981), his story is still one that resonates today, not just because he had cerebral palsy, but because (like everyone) he had more than his fair share of character flaws.

That is not to say he wasn’t extraordinary. Born into a traditional (and large) Irish family in 1930s Dublin, we see the story of Brown in flashbacks as the grown up Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis) is at an event celebrating his memoir. He shares his book with a newly met Nurse, Mary (Ruth McCabe). At first, it is her eyes we see the life of Christy, but then we find ourselves seeing it thru his eyes.

It is beyond frustrating at first for the adolescent Christy (Hugh O’Conor). He has a caring family and siblings, though his father (Ray McAnally, who passed away after filming concluded) is not the best at showing his love. The one clear rock in Christy’s life is his mother (Brenda Fricker), as shown in the brilliant scene when he communicates with his first word, “Mother”.

As a young man, Christy learns the many things we all do: sports, first love, heart ache, and self discovery. A lot of this is also shown in Dr. Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw), who takes a huge interest in Christy and his art.

No review of this movie would be complete with out mention of the acting. Perhaps the only bad thing one could say about Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is that it overshadows that of Hugh O’ Conor’s. Both are extraordinary, making it seem like one performance instead of two. Still, this is the film that brought people’s attention to Day-Lewis (it won him his first of a record three Best Actor Oscars).

The film won another Oscar for Brenda Fricker as Best Supporting Actress, who is stellar. It is clear that, without her, Brown would never have been able to be fueled to do all he accomplished. Still, as is the case in every movie he has been in, Daniel Day-Lewis showed us for the first time (and many times after) why he is one of the greatest film actors we have ever had (and if you don’t believe me, just look at the making of this movie and how in character he was. He was carried around the set when the cameras were off).

Parents, the movie is rated R. There is one bit of nudity (young boys see a nude photo in a book, and talk about sex). The main aspect though is swearing. I would say High School and above (though some mature middle schoolers may be okay at seeing it).

Had Christy not been flawed as a human, I doubt the movie would work as well as it did. To put it bluntly, he is no Helen Keller. I would say he is prickly, but that is understating it. Still, My Left Foot is a true inspiration of what the human spirit can accomplish, and a great study in how moving a performance can be.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

 

 

Molly’s Game (2017)

Molly's Game

In court, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) with attourney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba)

With the exception of Tarantino, I can’t think of anyone who does electric dialogue like Aaron Sorkin, and it shows in his directorial debut, Molly’s Game. True, there is a good amount that is hard to follow, but it is so palpable that you can’t turn away from it.

Based off the book of the same name, the film tells the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic skier who finds a way to make money by hosting poker games. The film splits between the story in the book (narrated by Bloom), and the events two years later after her arrest by the FBI. She searches for an attorney, and finds Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba).  Jaffey is only part way through her book, but when he decides to become her lawyer, he mentions how he now needs to finish it.

We see how Bloom’s life has been hard from the get go. A demanding father (a wonderful Kevin Costner) who was also her coach at a young age, he pushed her even after a disease required her to have spinal surgery at the age of 12. It is only after an accident of pure chance during the Olympic qualifying rounds that her skiing days are truly over.

At first, I thought the narration by Chastain was a little too much, but I realized how essential it was. I have played a good amount of poker games in my life (not professionally), but the film reminded me how little I knew about the game in general (mainly the terms I never heard of).

For privacy sake, Bloom decides not to mention the real names of any of the players (who range from hollywood stars to politicians), though there has been speculation as to who they are. Some include Player X (Michael Cera), one of the best around, and Brad (Brian d’Arcy James), who still manages to make money even when he is one of the worst players imaginable.

The tension between Elba and Chastain is some of the best non-romantic chemistry I have seen in an acting duo in some time. It is like a game of ping-pong with words. It is no wonder that the real Molly Bloom said she wanted Chastain to play her.

Parents, the movie is rated R mainly for swearing (and there is a lot of it). There is no sex or nudity, but the female characters do wear a lot of revealing clothing. There is also one scene of a violent assault. High School and above.

Perhaps what I liked most about the movie was the character traits of Molly. She is not the type we would associate with as a villain. She needs to make money, but (for the most part) does so in a near ethical way. We know there were some slip ups, but her heart is in the right place. Thankfully, the same could be same for Sorkin.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

I, Tonya (2017)

I, Tonya

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) in one of her few moments of true happiness…

There is one positive thing you can definitely say about Tonya Harding: She truly was a talented skater. She did things no woman had done before her, and was one who truly (at times) worked hard. It is too bad she made bad choices (one in particular) and had moment after moment of bad luck.

We have all heard of the story of how Harding asked her ex husband Jeff Gillooly to help do something with her rival (and roommate) Nancy Kerrigan. It resulted, of course, with a goon clubbing Kerrigan in the leg with a baton, taking her out of competition. What is unknown are the life events that led up to the incident, and that is what much of I, Tonya is about.

Director Craig Gillespie shoots the screenplay of Steven Rodgers in an almost “mockumentary” way. We get interviews on the side from Tonya (Margot Robbie) and her ex Jeff (Sebastian Stan), as well as Tonya’s mother LaVona (Allison Janney). We see how, as a child, the young Tonya (Mckenna Grace) is beyond tortured by her mother. All of the scenes with LaVona and her daughter (both as a child and adult) are played with more than just the icy venom we know a veteran thespian like Janney can deliver. Hers is one performance that will not be forgotten anytime soon (surely an Oscar nominated one). Her LaVona is the worst mom cinema has offered since 2009’s Precious. As she grows up, Tonya does seem to find a silver lining when she meets Jeff.  Sure, he is abusive, but they seem to make up shortly after (and then some).  While Sebastian Stan does hold his own, there is no doubt how spectacular Margot Robbie is. It will be very difficult for her to top this performance later on in her career.

One of the things that I admit surprised me the most was how smart the movie was. There is even some fourth wall breaking that occurs, and a certain character telling us they “know what we came for”. There is also some wonderful jabs at the early 90s as well, such as trying to have a phone call in private at your friend’s house.

Parents, the movie is rated R for good reason. There is a lot of swearing (the majority from Janney), one sex scene, and some nudity in a strip club. High School and above.

 

While some points do tend to drag on a bit, the film was still a refreshing piece of work, and one of the funniest I have seen all year. Whether it is factually correct or not, I am not sure, but it is to Robbie’s credit that you will be watching her, and not know if it is the real Harding or not.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

The Disaster Artist (2017)

The Disaster Artist

“What’s my line?” asks Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), yet again.

What an enigma is Tommy Wiseau.

Actually, enigma is putting it lightly.

Ever since he made headlines with his masterpiece of atrocity, The Room (not to be confused with 2015’s much more superior film, Room), he is still somewhat of a mystery. Very protective of his private life, he won’t even give out his exact age (though research has shown he is now somewhere in his early sixties). He says he is from New Orleans, but now says he came to America from Poland.

One thing is for sure: It is thanks to Mr. Wiseau that we have The Room (2003).

Upon entering The Disaster Artist, I have not seen the entirety of The Room, but enough scenes to get a flavor of how awful it is. In generations to come, it’s only rival in the movie category of “so bad it is good” would be the garbage dump that is 1959’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (which I have tried at least three times to watch and fall asleep at the same time).

The Disaster Artist is based on the book by actor Greg Sestero. In the film, he is played by Dave Franco (younger brother of James). Greg is an inspiring actor, but is far too shy on stage. In his acting class, he meets the bizarre Tommy (James Franco), who has no qualm with what others think of him. After a pinkie swear at the crash site of their idol James Dean, they move to LA, in search of stardom. When offers won’t come their way (including a memorable meeting with Judd Apatow), they decide to make their own movie.

If you are not as familiar with The Room, you may wonder where Tommy is getting all this money from. The thing is, so is all of his crew (including the script supervisor, played by Seth Rogen). As stated before, Tommy is very private about his personal life, and won’t share where he gets the dough. What is important to him is that this movie is made. After writing the script himself, production goes into play.

In short, it becomes a nightmare, as Tommy has everyone (even Greg) feeling queasy. Examples include a bathroom (actually just a toilet with a curtain cover) for Tommy only, he wants to shoot using both a film camera and a digital one, and shows one of the more comic sex scenes in film history (“Why is he having sex with her belly button?”)

James Franco is simply astounding as Wiseau (both of whom directed their respected films). He has the voice down to pin point accuracy, but the performance is more than just mockery. It is moving and subtle, let alone hilarious. Franco knows about flops (he, like me and everyone else, would hate to remember how he co hosted the Oscars), but also knows how to have fun at the same time as give us a character embodiment. At the end of the film, we see a side by side comparison of the real film and the one with Franco (to make the film almost all over again is serious dedication). The comparison alone is worth the price of admission.

Parents, the movie is not for kids. There is swearing, and some (minor) sex scenes (male rear nudity, as well has frontal, though the genitalia is covered). Mature High School and above.

After the movie ended, I found out that the real Wiseau (who I now strangely would love to meet) said he would only accept one of two actors to play him: James Franco and Johnny Depp. The fact that Franco knows this material and his subject inside and out (both in front of the camera and behind it) makes me a little nervous to say that Tommy Wiseau does have a little more movie knowledge than we give him credit for.

 

Overall: Three and a half Stars ***1/2