Vice

* * * *

Adam McKay is an American treasure, a keenly intelligent, outrageously talented writer / producer / director whose last film, The Big Short (2015) and last television work, the pilot for Succession this year, were both phenomenal. His new film, Vice, a sweeping examination of Dick Cheney, will inevitably be seen in comparison to The Big Short; stylistically, they share similarities, together defining McKay’s new, mature “style” (as distinct from the major comedic chops he swung as writer / producer / director of such films as Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers). Vice suffers in that comparison – such is the problem when one follows a masterwork -but it is still vital and urgent and demands to be seen.

Christian Bale plays Cheney, Amy Adams his wife and co-conspirator Lynne, Steve Carell his mentor Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell his boss, George W. Bush. They’re all excellent; Bale once again proves himself a master of playing old white men under makeup and fat (I believe his own). Interestingly, in the scenes of Cheney as a younger man (the film, more of a traditional biopic than I was expecting, covers Cheney from college-age to the present), Bale seems hardly disguised at all, save for makeup to make him appear more youthful. Was Cheney ever that good looking?

As with The Big Short, McKay uses many techniques to tell his complicated story, including a non-linear structure, fragmented editing incorporating quick inserts of representative imagery (especially drawn from the world of fishing, Cheney’s hobby, which at least isn’t golf), and use of news, archival and other real-world footage. He also incorporates a narrator, mainly off-screen but sometimes on, played by Jesse Plemons, and sometimes relies too heavily upon him. There’s a lot of narration, and I felt a little spoon-fed, as though McKay had lost a little nerve, or a little trust in our own abilities to connect the dots. It felt like a surprising mis-step given the spectacular clarity with which McKay was able to tell the Big Short story, which was really complicated.

I have another quibble, and I’ll call spoiler alert, although of course this is a true story. McKay uses Cheney’s long support, and ultimate betrayal, of his daughter Mary’s homosexuality and her same-sex marriage as the emotional spine of the film and ultimate depiction of Cheney’s wickedness. But, as a title card at the end tells us, Cheney could be seen as responsible for well over 600,000 human deaths. Surely that is more powerful than his betrayal of his own daughter, as ghastly as that sounds? Again, it’s as though McKay worried that Cheney’s story was simply too cold to engage without a family hearth to shatter.

Ultimately I suspect McKay possibly could have developed a better version of this story given more development. As it is, it’s still totally worth your time. I hope it doesn’t just play to the converted.

Nocturnal Animals

nocturnal-animals-poster2-slide-670x335

**** (out of five)

Tom Ford’s second feature after A Single Man (2009) is a seriously mature work, a terrifying thriller for adults that has staggering resonance in the wake of the US election results. At its heart, it is about two things: how choices we make can devastatingly affect the rest of our lives, and how violently divided the city and country dwellers of the United States are. Seeing it literally the morning after Trump got elected was surreal.

Amy Adams plays a total “cultural elite”, a Los Angeles art gallery owner married to some sort of high flying entrepreneur (Armie Hammer). She’s been divorced for nearly twenty years from a writing teacher / novelist (Jake Gyllenhaal). One day she receives his new novel, in proof form, in the mail, and it’s dedicated to her. As she reads it, we see it, and the affect it has on her, which is obviously intentional – perhaps maliciously so.

The two stories are very different in terms of content; the “real” events of the film are all about a woman facing a youngish mid-life crisis in her incredible Los Angeles mansion, while the story of the novel is a grim, indeed nightmarish, tale of a group of rednecks terrorising a young family in West Texas (also the setting of Hell or High Water, incidentally). But the tone and style of the film embraces both stories, linking and interweaving them extremely artfully to create a whole that is genuinely disturbing.

Ford is a rather incredible individual, having only two features to his credit and both of them excellent, and a massive design career to boot. The fact that Nocturnal Creatures is, at least on the surface, tremendously different to A Single Man is also creditable. There are similarities – both films deal intensely with the main character’s introspection over a very limited timeframe (and both in Los Angeles) and both are exquisitely crafted. Ford is no dilettante. His framing is distinctive, his use of music bold and exhilarating (the fantastic score is by Abel Korzeniowski, who also scored A Single Man) and the performances he gets are pitch perfect. Michael Shannon, as a cop in the “story within the story”, has never been better.

Intriguingly, this film opens in Australia the same day as Arrival, also starring Adams in the lead. There’s Oscar nomination buzz for her on that one, but I’d vote for her performance here, which carries far greater emotional depth, thanks in no small part to a far superior script (and film).

Arrival

arrival-poster-venezuela**1/2

Denis Villeneuve has a pacing problem. The last act of the otherwise excellent Sicario (2015) slowed to a crawl; Prisoners (2013) dragged; and now Arrival, his dour, monotonal emo-sci-fi extravaganza, starring Amy Adams as a linguist trying to talk to the aliens, spends its long second act in a kind of suspended animation almost guaranteed to bring sleep to the weary. It’s laborious.

The film also feels deeply, cloyingly influenced by others. It’s the last act of Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Contact meets Inception / Interstellar meets The Tree of Life. Scenes of Adams’ character, Dr. Louise Banks, and her daughter seem directly ripped from the latter, while Nolan’s influence is not just apparent but breathtakingly obvious – as though Villeneuve wanted to be Nolan and was trying to pull off some weird con by making a Nolan movie.

Aliens have arrived at twelve locations around the world; they’re hovering in big ships, and we the people of earth don’t know what to do. The US Army enlists Louise to try to talk to them. She tries and tries, along with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who really should have been played by Mark Ruffalo. But their language is complicated, it’s taking too much time, and, meanwhile, the Chinese want to nuke ‘em.

It may sound exciting but it’s not. For the most part, it grinds on in scenes that are repetitious not only in content but visually, the drab overcast Montana skies combining with the monotonous hues of an army camp to induce a sense of overwhelming Sunday afternoon melancholy. Forest Whitaker stands around and spits out quiet, intense exposition as an army Colonel, while Michael Stuhlbarg – bless him! – provides the film’s only lightness and wit as a CIA Agent along for the language lessons.

Like Interstellar, the film aims to be deeply emotionally compelling, but, while the complicated story structure definitely pays off as a sci-fi concept, it tries too hard to make you cry to actually make you cry. I appreciated the clever gimmickry of the conclusion and was glad the credits rolled.

Let The Games Begin!

Okay, now that the dust has settled – meaning that everyone in LA has appeared on at least one radio or television show, podcast, blog, column or street corner, pontificating about the Oscar nominations, I will now pontificate about the Oscar nominations. Enjoy, and please, do not be afraid to comment. I’ll continue to post throughout the categories, but let’s begin with…

BEST ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett and Amy Adams are on Centre Court here. Blanchett received reviews of the “Give her the Oscar now!” variety when Blue Jasmine came out, but that was many months ago, which is a lifetime in an Oscar campaign (the risk always being the dreaded phrase “That came out this year?”) Somehow, though, she’s maintained momentum, buoyed hugely by her recent Golden Globe win.

But Amy Adams also won a Golden Globe. How, you ask? And here things get funny, and they get funny about the concept of “funny”. Amy Adams won the Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical – and American Hustle is definitely not a Musical (despite a fine soundtrack). By contrast, and gaining the superior position of receiving her award later in the ceremony, Blanchett won her Blue Jasmine award for Best Actress in a Drama.

Blanchett. Drama?
Blanchett. Drama?

Except not only are both movies comedies, Blue Jasmine is the more obvious comedy. It’s a Woody Allen film full of Woody Allen one-liners, situations, characters (including stereotypes) and comic set-pieces. Interiors it is not. It’s not even Match Point. It’s not even Deconstructing Harry, and it’s a million miles from Husbands and Wives and Crimes and Misdemeanours – which, by the way, were also comedies. The placement of Blanchett in the “Drama” category was ludicrous. But many things about the Golden Globes are. So the beef there is with them, not Blanchett.

So back to the performances themselves and their likelihood for the Oscar. For my money, Blanchett’s performance is too much. I – and this is not only very much a personal taste thing but also, I feel, a minority view – could “see the acting” the whole way through. It was what the British call virtuosic or bravura acting – acting which calls attention to itself. It’s awfully fun to watch but it’s also just extremely proficient hamminess. Which is absolutely not calling Blanchett a ham. All brilliant actors are capable of hamminess if they want to use it, while not all hams are capable of brilliance.

Adams. Comedy?
Adams. Comedy?

Adams’ performance in American Hustle, by contrast, is simply brilliant (not bravura, “virtuosic” in the British sense, or hammy); it’s subtle, endlessly layered, and perfect. I gave her my MOVIELAND Award for Best Actress of 2013. Playing a con-woman who is conflicted in love and life, juggling street intelligence with emotional cross-wiring, and layering an intense sexuality throughout, it is the performance of her career and the performance – in any category – of the year.

Adams comes with more freshly-baked presence, not only being “younger” (at least in terms of the industry) than Blanchett but having her film released much more recently and to many many more Oscar nominations. But I suspect the Oscar will go to Blanchett – just. She won the Screen Actor’s Guild Award for Best Actress, which is huge, as the Actors are the biggest voting bloc of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And she kind of has this going on for her: “Well, if you didn’t give it to her for Elizabeth (it went to Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love), and you don’t give it to her for this, then what kind of bloody performance are you expecting from her to actually give it to her for?” Whereas Adams has this: “Just wait, we’ll give you one. We just have to give Blanchett one first. To make up for Elizabeth…”