Vice

Usually I open these reviews with something snarky, but writer-director Adam McKay beat me to the punch in the opening moments of this film. 

Vice is not a biopic, as the opening text goes on to make very clear.  Dick Cheney is and has always been a very mysterious figure, and there is little to no way to know what was going through his mind during these specific events in his life.  So how do you play it?  Do you do your best and present the facts to the best of your ability with an Aaron Sorkin-esque script in your hand?  Most, including me, would probably say yes.

But McKay doesn’t… at least not fully. He leans so far into black comedy that Vice, not unlike his last film The Big Short, begins to make you feel uncomfortable about how much you’re laughing at and with it, and the disastrous results of its narrative.  There are no “walk and talks” or playwright diatribes – and that sort of works in the films favor, but really only if you believe in its politics.

What the film lacks in political tact, it makes up for with meta gags, perspective shifts, self-deprecation, fourth wall breaks, and anything else it can do to ease the viewer into the information dump to soon follow.  The film is also lead by an interesting narrative device – a nameless narrator, portrayed by Jesse Plemons, who’s fate is intertwined with our main character. However, one of the films biggest flaws is its pacing, especially in the early going before you’ve had a chance to fully understand what type of movie McKay is going for.

Christian Bale once again transforms his body, both size and physical demeanor, and to the surprise of no one, he knocks it out of the park.  Later in the film, when real life footage from the events taking place in the film are used, the actors are inserted in place of their real life counterparts.  I’m telling you this now so you can avoid the argument on the way out of the theater,  because particularly when Bale is featured in these scenes, it’s almost unnoticeable.  The makeup does a lot of the work, but Bale sells it every step of the way.  Likewise, Amy Adams’ Lynne Cheney is fierce and unapologetic, and is one of Adams’ best performances to date.  The film also commits a decent size of its two hour and fifteen minute run time to Lynne, actually attempting to flesh out her as a character by showing just how much of an influence she seemed to be on the cold and secretive Dick.

Vice isn’t going to be for everybody, whether that be for political or creative reasons, but it knows what it is and what it aims to do.  To put it in a baseball metaphor, as the film does many times once George W. Bush enters the film:  Vice is a feast or famine hitter who comes to the plate looking at the left field bleachers.  It doesn’t work all the time, but when it connects, it does serious damage.

 

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse – Spoiler Free

It’s kind of frustrating that we had to go through those Amazing Spider-Man movies when we could have been doing this kind of thing all along.

Well over a decade after their last true win with this property, Sony somehow defied all odds and made an animated, PG rated Spider-Man movie that not only captures the tone of classic Spider-Man, but also uses a sometimes mesmerizing comic book come to life animation style that blends hand drawn and computer generated in a game changing way.

No really, Into The Spider-Verse is as good as advertised.  With a plot revolving around different universes crossing over, meaning several different Spider-hyphens within multiple scenes, the film cleverly balances gags between its ancillary Spider characters while dedicating actual emotional character development to its core characters.  Because there are a LOT of characters.

A stellar voice cast prevents this from mattering too much at all.  Jake Johnson’s middle aged Spider-Man was a breath of fresh air for the Peter Parker character on the big screen, and the big screen debut of Miles Morales is handled as well as could have been hoped for.  Brian Tyree Henry also delivers a couple of big emotional scenes as Miles’ policeman father who he doesn’t really get along with.

The comedy is almost Deadpool like in both sharpness and tone, with plenty of meta gags and references not unlike what you’d see in The Lego Movies.  I really can’t praise the dialogue and writing enough.  Phil Lord and Chris Miller have done it again, and it’s a damn shame we never got to see their Han Solo movie.

It’s almost impossible to imagine someone of any age watching this movie without a smile on their face.  The voice cast is stellar and wide ranging, from Nic Cage and John Mulaney to Lily Tomlin and Liev Schreiber .  The animation style is innovative and fresh, and commands your attention throughout.  The story, while nothing you haven’t seen before, is easy to follow despite all the pieces in play  And while the movie may be rated PG, that doesn’t mean they forgot to inject some Pixar level pathos into this guy.  Into The Spider-Verse isn’t just an achievement in animation, or just a surefire precedent setter the way Deadpool was, it’s in fact one of the best overall movies you’ll see this year.

 

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald – Spoiler Free

J.K. Rowling finally wrote something worse than her Tweets.

Holy shit, I really don’t even know where to begin.  For all of my complaining about how pointless these movies would be, I was holding out hope after I finally saw the first one and found it to be… fine.  Inoffensive but ultimately pointless.  I had hoped the title indicated that the franchise was just going to come right out and make the young Dumbledore movie it clearly wanted to make…

But this ain’t it, chief.  Fantastic Beasts 2 is an incoherent and bloated mess that seems like it could have been used as a story for a lead in comic book to the movie, ala what Marvel does. Instead it’s strung out over two hours and fifteen minutes with pacing issues, character development issues, obligatory fan service that ultimately means nothing, and one of the most underwhelming twists in recent history.

Seeming to not know which direction to take, J.K. Rowling seems to have taken all the leftover scraps that she usually tweets and made a stew with them.  The movie tries to juggle stories about:

Dumbledore and Grindlewald
Newt Scamander and Tina Goldstein
Newt Scamander and his brother (I literally can’t remember his name)
Newt Scamander and his brother’s fiance (and Newt’s former love interest) Leta Lestrange
Leta Lestrange herself
The Lestrange family
Jacob Kowalski’s relationship with Queenie Goldstein
Creedance Barebone

And it drops every ball on the way down.  Most of the movies main offenses come from its story, which I’m not going to get into at all obviously, so you’ll just have to discover those for yourself.  Usually in this situation, I try to relate to fans of the subject matter/franchise more than I do film lovers.  But that’s just yet another problem with this movie: it doesn’t even have enough room to deliver proper fan service.  Jude Law’s Dumbledore?  He’s in approximately 4 scenes, and when someone finally tallies his screen time in this movie, I’m going to guess it’s somewhere just under 20 minutes.  Johnny Depp’s sleepwalking performance as Grindlewald?  I’d say somewhere around 30 minutes.  Hogwarts?  Barely here.  And worst of all, one of the deepest cut moments of fan service comes from a surprise character who serves only as a literal deus ex machina.

It’s hard to believe that this movie failed to deliver so spectacularly on both fronts.  I can’t really spell it out anymore than I already have while being spoiler free.  I can’t recommend this movie to really anyone, unfortunately.  Not as a grumpy, jaded person who wants more from the Hollywood franchise machine factory, and sadly, not even as the kid who who read the original books religiously and dressed up as Harry Potter on more than one occasion.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Sacha Baron Cohen was right.

The musical biopic can typically go one of two ways.  The first is to please the masses, providing a medley of the subject’s hits in a quasi-dramatic fashion.  The second is to explore the subject on a personal level.  By its title, you would easily assume that Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie about the band Queen.  And you would be mostly correct. But why is Freddie Mercury the only person featured on the poster if the movie doesn’t have anything to say about him?

At two hours and fifteen minutes, Bohemian Rhapsody had the runway to walk a fair amount of each path, but seems to not even bother to try for huge stretches of that runtime.  Announced back in 2010 with Sacha Baron Cohen in the lead role, Bohemian Rhapsody’s rocky development has been no real secret (I’m not even going to bother with the films credited director).  Long after leaving the project due to creative differences with the band, Cohen famously gave an interview in 2016 where he confirmed everything this movie became to be: a paint by numbers singalong that ultimately amounts to a celebration of the music of Queen rather than a movie about the bands legendary and enigmatic front man.

Brian May, Roger Taylor, John Deacon.  For those unaware, these are the other members of Queen.  As someone who grew up listening to them, I have always been aware of their talents and individual contributions to the band.  The movie takes more than a couple of moments to make sure that you’re aware that each Queen song was typically written by an individual member.  But to what end?  It’s not like the film explores them at all as characters or individuals.

The film’s star, Rami Malek, is clearly front and center here.  His portrayal of Mercury has been praised as the best element of the movie by virtually every person who’s seen it, and for good reason.  In the moments that this film stops being a music video medley of Queen’s greatest hits, Malek is given serious dramatic scenes that offer such a stark contrast to the other parts that it almost gave me whiplash.  The singers struggle with his sexuality was just one part of his larger than life personality, and the movie does an adequate job of exploring this… but in the end, it provides virtually no real insight to the  man that couldn’t have been read on Wikipedia.

Subject matter and execution aside, the films first hour or so is shot and edited like a VH1 Behind the Music special.  There are so many cuts and montages that it seemed like they were never really going to get to the character moments.  And when it does, the clashing between the two paths leaves the pacing all over the place.  Thankfully, the world famous Live Aid performance that bookends Bohemian Rhapsody is energetic and powerful.

In fairness, this was probably always going to be the movie that was going to be made.  Brian May and Roger Taylor still tour to this day, and were directly credited as “executive music producers” on the film, and that’s what clearly mattered to Fox.  The surviving members of Queen have always been very reluctant to talk about Freddie’s personal life, and it was my hope that when the finished product was finally released, their layers and context could provide the writers with enough material for a character study along the lines of Ray or Walk The Line.  If you aren’t invested in the subject matter or a specific kind of storytelling, Bohemian Rhapsody is probably going to be a great time at the theater.  But for those like me, it comes off as an excuse to reissue the bands back catalogue.

 

 

 

Mid90’s

A24 sure do know how to pump out coming of age movies, huh?

The coming of age movie has been a huge hit in the past few years, and as I’ve grown into my mid 20’s, it’s officially time that these start hitting closer and closer to home. Taking his first turn as director and screenwriter, Jonah Hill’s Mid90’s is an authentic depiction of the friendships and experiences you form and go through at very vulnerable parts of your life.

Through the lens of Stevie, a 13 year old boy with a difficult family life (I have a bit to say about this later), the film explores his attempts to find a place where he feels at home. For Stevie, that home is the streets of Los Angeles among a group of slightly older skaters who also each have a variety of goals, aspirations, and personal struggles.  Quickly given the name Sunburn, Stevie soon succumbs to the temptations the older teens expose him to as an escape.

One aspect I admire most about the film is how authentic the screenplay is.  Hill doesn’t shy away from depicting the youthful counterculture for what it was.  There are plenty of casual racial and homophobic slurs to be found here, as well as a heaping tablespoon of toxic masculinity.  There’s even a sure to be controversial scene involving sexual assault.  But Mid90’s doesn’t just serve as a pure nostalgia trip that includes these things simply for authenticity.  The movie takes several moments to address these toxic behaviors and doesn’t put it on a pedestal.  These are troubled, broken characters, and the movie treats them as such despite their ages.

The cast of actors portraying the crew that Sunny Suljic’s Stevie befriends are comprised of… well, not actors.  A24 have worked their magic again, hiring authentic skaters to portray these characters, much like last year’s The Florida Project (please see it if you haven’t) used real life Floridians to round out most of its cast. Na-kel Smith’s Ray is the real standout here, as he delivers a truly great acting performance in one of the movies best and most emotional scenes.

Stevie’s family are portrayed by the two most established actors in the cast – Katherine Waterson and Lucas Hedges – but this is where most of my issues with the movie lie.  These characters aren’t really ever developed beyond that of concerned mother and abusive older brother.  When compared to something like Laurie Metcalf’s character in Lady Bird (I’m gonna keep referencing these excellent A24 outings), Waterson and Hedges aren’t really given much depth or nuance.  We never find out exactly what is making his brother so angry, or really anything about the mother other than the fact that she became a mom before turning 18.  The movie is only 85 minutes long, so I feel there could have been more context given to what makes those characters tick.

With a minimalist approach and a heavy amount of restraint, Mid90’s isn’t a movie about skateboarding, but rather damaged youth and the adversities of growing up in a world that seems to be against you.  It probably won’t speak to everyone, as this is a movie about a time and its culture that is very specific, but the highs heavily outweigh the lows.

Green Book

It’s Oscar season baby, and you know what that means: movies with social messages time.

Green Book is a movie you can pretty much read from a mile away after seeing its trailer for the first time.  Based on a true story, an Italian-American small time hustler with a heart of gold must leave his struggling family to take a job driving for a wealthy man he believes to be a medical doctor. Of course, he soon learns it’s a bit more complicated than that.  Green Book derives it’s title from The Negro Motorist Green Book, an accommodations guide book for African-Americans to follow while traveling in the Jim Crow south.  The film starts a dynamic duo of Oscar friendly actors Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, the latter of who has become one of my favorite actors since he broke out in the early seasons of House of Cards, and the goods are definitely delivered in that regard.

Set in 1962, the movie tackles the laundry list of racial issues African-Americans faced in the South, and it hits all the beats it should, but none of them in a particularly new or interesting way.  But the most interesting aspect of its storytelling is the identity crisis that deeply affects Ali’s Don Shirley, a black pianist who plays classical music for rich white people and has little to no knowledge of legendary African-American performers like Aretha Franklin, or many aspects of the culture of “his people,” as Mortensen’s Tony “Lip” Vallelonga constantly reminds him. The layers of this identity crisis are slowly revealed over the course of the second act, including a couple of ones that really could have used a little more depth.

While Shirley is the more interesting character, Mortensen’s Tony Lip is a lovable, street smart bouncer, driver, and essentially enforcer who is given a significant amount of screen time (his real life son wrote the screenplay, so it makes sense). Tony doesn’t have quite the same emotional depth to his arc, but Mortensen is typically stellar and seems to have a lot of fun with the more comedic beats of the film.

Director Peter Farrelly is a name I would assume most wouldn’t recognize as the credits roll, but my jaw did drop slightly when I the lights went up and I realized that half of the brother duo who made such dumpster fires as Movie 43, Dumb and Dumber Too, and Shallow Hal managed to competently direct a movie.  Its thick layer of cheese, particularly in the comedic moments, then began to make so much sense when I saw that he also gathered a screenwriting credit.

While it doesn’t excel much beyond what plenty of other similar films in recent years have in its overall thematic depth and story, Green Book is a relatively family friendly feel good movie that showcases a couple of interesting characters with brilliant actors, and that is probably worth the price of admission when it drops just in time for Thanksgiving in a couple of weeks.

A Star Is Born

Hey, I was much more interested in this than Venom.

A Star Is Born is a remake of a retelling of a musical remake of a 1937 film with a tale as old as time about a fading star spiraling out of control while falling in love with a star in the making that will soon eclipse his own.

While there’s a lot to like about this movie, it’s main problem is presented right up front in my previous paragraph. While theoretically the film should be equally weighing the two leads (Lady Gaga and writer/director Bradley Cooper, both being excellent), not much depth is given to the female lead of Ally, and most of the early developments with the character are rooted in an insecurity that isn’t all that believable.

Much more time is given to the character of Jackson Maine, a legit blues rock star in the modern day (hey, it’s the movies I guess) who is a ticking time bomb not entirely of his own creation. His relationship with his father, who is long dead and never appears on screen, is explored more deeply than the one involving Ally and her alive, on screen father in… a good performance by Andrew Dice Clay?  Yeah, this movie is gonna be the weirdest thing your mom is going to absolutely love.

Cooper directs the hell out of the movie, especially in the live performance scenes between the two, and his acting is at the top of his game. Dave Chappelle is also giving what might be his first ever real acting performance, although he appears briefly, but just at the right time as the movie starts to grind it out a little too long. Sam Elliot shows up as classic Sam Elliot at different parts of the movie as Jackson’s much older brother, which is always a good thing, especially in a meta moment where you realize that Cooper is essentially doing a Sam Elliot impression the entire movie.

The music is great, and the the soundtrack I’m sure has already amassed millions of streams.  It’s pretty cut and dry bluesy and pop rock, but it’s really well done and well performed by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, who seems to be trying to outdo Ryan Gosling at the “random good looking guy also becomes decent at singing for a movie” award.

There’s no reinventing the wheel here, just some retooling for the time period, but A Star Is Born is a very well made movie, with great performances and great direction, but suffers a bit too much in being too self-indulgent to fully transcend the threshold of it’s now cliche story.

First Man

Damien Chazelle makes a movie about Neil Armstrong, and somehow (inevitably), one of the best parts about it is jazz.

First Man is less of a traditional biopic than it is a character study, focusing on Armstrong from 1962 to 1969. The film’s thematic core explores how Armstrong reacts to the loss of his two year old daughter to a brain tumor, and how he turned his grief into the chance to step foot on the moon.

Being a movie who’s motif is death, this movie is very cold, and I mean that in the Christopher Nolan sense.  This movie is shot with tons of blues, and features its fair share of scenes at night, along with the inevitable space sequences. It’s very dark, literally and figuratively, and it’s set to a very moody and excellent jazz score.

Adding to the building tension and dread as you see Armstrong pushing himself further and further, while becoming more and more distant emotionally, is Gosling’s excellent ability to act with only his facial expressions like we saw in his performance in Blade Runner 2049.

Chazelle builds on this with intense point of view shots inside the crafts that Armstrong is a passenger of, complete with excellent sound design that makes you feel claustrophobic and anxious for the character. He also uses really cool fluid rotating shots in the zero gravity sequences that really popped out on the big screen.

As for the cons, the pacing is also a little weird, given how slow the first 45 minutes are, and how quick the next 45 fly by before ending with the also inevitable but amazing moon landing mission. Claire Foy is excellent but given the movie, she isn’t really ever handed a whole lot to do.

First Man is a movie probably best seen in theaters for the visual and sonic immersion, because while well acted and directed, this movie could probably be seen as a little depressing to most.  And yeah, I’m basically telling you the dude who made La La Land made a Chris Nolan movie, but it’s the good kind of Nolan movie.

Eighth Grade

It’s been a couple of months since a movie made me want to write a review.  I’ve seen these movies since my Solo review:

Ready Player One
Hotel Artemis
Tag
Ocean’s 8
Ant-Man and the Wasp

I liked all of these movies to varying degrees, but wasn’t exactly motivated to write anything because I don’t like going through the motions just for the sake of motion. I’d like to write only if I’m passionate about the movie.

Eighth Grade has broken that lazy ‘feeling.  Another female centered coming of age dramedy from A24, following last years excellent Ladybird, Eighth Grade features some of the most realistic dialogue I’ve ever heard.  Writer/Director Bo Burnham has long been known for his sharp comedy and lyrical content, and it shines through the movie in every interaction.  The scenes of Kayla, the lead, and her dad showcase this realistic tone the most.

Burnham also uses a lot of tight angled and up close shots, and display’s Kayla’s blotchy, just entering teenage years skin front and center in most shots, creating a feeling of familiarity with this character.  You see her at some of her worst moments in this movie, and the way it is shot makes you feel like you’re in the room with a friend rather than an actress on a screen.  It gives it a personal and almost handheld feel to the movie.

One part Linklater and one part Apatow, Eighth Grade is another great coming of age movie in a great debut for Bo Burnham.  It hits really heavily, but doesn’t beat you over the head, and isn’t afraid to go the places that landed it an R rating.  The performances are great, the score is great, and the screenplay is fantastic.  This will likely be another awards contender in the vein of Ladybird or The Big Sick, and you should see it in theaters and support smaller films.

Solo: A Star Wars Story – Spoiler Free

I’m gonna make this one pretty short because I don’t have a lot of strong opinions on the movie either way, and I’m not an absolute cretin who takes Star Wars as seriously as anything in my life.

No, it’s not bad.

No, it’s not great.

Solo is overall a fun watch that doesn’t have a lot of depth to it and doesn’t even necessarily justify its own existence.  The first twenty minutes are rough.  They are filled with choppy exposition and a pretty flat chemistry between Emilia Clarke and Alden Ehrenreich.  Once Han is separated from her for a bit is where the movie is at its best.  Ehrenreich is thankfully doing more than a Harrison Ford impression, although he does do a very good one when its needed.  Donald Glover on the other hand is doing 20% Donald Glover and 80% Billy Dee Williams impression.  It’s good enough but it doesn’t seem memorable.  Emilia Clarke’s character Qi’ra is underwritten and overall flat, which hurts the first twenty minutes I mentioned the most.  The rest of the cast are perfectly serviceable one note characters in what is a perfectly serviceable movie.  It has some ugly shots and bad lighting at times, but the good outweighs the bad by more than a little bit, which is all it really had to be I guess.