“Vice”

The message is clear. The American people were hooked when Vice-President Dick Cheney took over as the most powerful VP in American history. This cynical and humorous bio-pic never loses sight of this truth. And the truth is told in the most creative ways by incredible actors.

Christian Bale has Cheney’s stare and smirk down! Add the heavy gold watch on that thick wrist that can flick and cast, and we have our metaphor for power. Beware of the quiet man. He watches, waits, and then strikes. Give that man (no matter that he was kicked out of Yale for drinking and fighting) an ambitious wife, Lynne Cheney ( Amy Adams) and we have the MacBeths. One of my favorite scenes being their Shakespearean bed plotting. Adams, too, is brilliant. As a take-charge-goal-setter, Adams lights up the screen, even as her old family demons keep her fighting for control.

A cast never looked more like the people they are portraying. Steve Carell as the crude talking Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell as the clueless George W. Bush, and Tyler Perry as Colin Power, and LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleeza Rice will impress. But more impressive than the acting and the physical appointments is writer Adam McKay. Half National Lampoon satire and half Michael Moore diatribe, this film is heaven for liberals about the hell of our political scene.

McKay uses a catchy format of narration. Midway through the film, we intuit that the young man speaking is Cheney’s heart donor. Bogus credits roll after a half hour, and we wish this was the end of our story. In Michael Moore fashion, this film asks Americans if they were sleeping or just working such long hours that we chose not to think about our government. Yet, Cheney is portrayed as a ghost~a powerful one.

A dark comedy, “Vice” shows Cheney working as an intern for Illinois Congressman Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld tells Cheney that two DUIs came up on his clearance papers: “ I took care of it. You owe me.” As Rumsfeld’s lackey , Cheney becomes a servant to power as Rumsfeld rises to serve in the Nixon White House, becomes Secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford ( 1975-77) and under George W. Bush ( 2001-06).

In one sequence, Cheney tells his daughter that if you have power, people will try to take it away from you. Much is made in the film about Cheney’s championing of Unitary Executive Theory. In its most extreme form, Congress and the Federal Courts can not touch the President. Others argue that Commander-in-Chief refers to military and National Security matters only. McKay shows the Cheneys as power bandits.

Through the use of conservative think tanks, the repeal of balanced reporting laws, and pundits like Rush Limbaugh, McKay ferrets us through the history of the rise of the Right. When a snippet of Ronald Reagan’s speech “ Let’s make America great, again” we are meant to wince. Like in McKay’s film “The Big Short” ( reviewed here Dec. 20, 2015) he ferrets out the money trail to Halliburton and Cheney’s CEO connections and the resulting 500% increase in the corporation’s stock.

”Vice”’s visuals are stunningly clever. I loved the stack of unwieldy porcelain cups and saucers ready to topple. The tasseled loafers, the way Cheney buttons his jacket, his saunter with briefcase under his arm, all mesh with power and the horrible history of 9/11, the Iraq War, the take down of Saddam Hussein, and the rise of his replacement, ISIS. In one memorable scene, we see Alfred Molina as a waiter serving up entrees of torture to Dick and his guests. The Guantanamo archive back-up is deactivated and Cheney says ” clean to work.”

The ending song from “West Side Story” with its lyrics ” I like to be in America, Okay by me in America” follows Dick Cheney speaking to the camera: ” I will not apologize for keeping your family safe.” There are no heroes in this film, only ruthless power brokers and a nod to Cheney’s public acceptance of his daughter’s lesbianism. Incriminations reign and it is hard to be entertained by them. “Vice” is about vice.

“Arrival”

What would it be like to have no beginning, middle, or end? What language might support a non-linear way of relating to the world?  Would living without a goal be ecstatically supported? Would grief be eradicated, or at least made easier to bear?

Philosophically, these ideas are just brushed once across the canvas of Director Denis  Villeneuve’s sci-film “Arrival”. What is done is that we are toyed  with flash-forwards instead of flashbacks. It is tricky, inventive and confusing. We hear our protagonist say, “Memory is a strange thing. We Are bound by time and its order.” Then we see hazy dream-like images: a baby, a small girl. We hear the phrase, ” Come back to me.” The viewer is set up to think we are in a flashback: that Prof. Banks has lost her daughter to illness is implied. We again hear a voice over: “I’m not sure I believe in beginnings and endings, or in moments that design your life.”

Amy Adams is perfect as Dr. Louise Banks. Her facial structure easily bends to curiosity, apprehension, and awe. Unlike Adam’s role in ” Nocturnal Animals”, we can see her thinking. She is a linguist of the highest calibre. Her inductive reasoning skills are fun to watch; and,  her controlled emotional responses to both her daughter’s illness, her divorce, and her mother’s telephone calls are universally relatable. Picking her battles wisely, she can hold her own politically and in the classroom.

We were told that Louise’s first husband was a scientist. We think  she lost a daughter, Hannah. When physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) falls in love with Louise’s bravery, brains, and compassion, we think she has a chance to start over. Then, we come to understand that Hannah will be their child.

The script written by Eric Hesserer is based on one of Chinese-American sci-fi writer Ted Chiang’s 1998 short stories. The extraterrestials are tentacled octopi. They use inkblot images to converse. They arrive in huge, spherical,  gray eggs, composition unknown. Confusion  over translations  “offer tool” or “use weapon” causes much of the world tension. A renown linguist is needed to ask why they have come. Besides, “language is the first weapon drawn in  a conflict.”

“Arrival” ‘s first forty minutes are well-paced and engrossing: clouds whip and cellos sound. The mid-section lags and  feels repetitive. The script does not lead us anywhere but to the maxim that the world needs to work together in the interest of humanity. The aliens have delivered twelve puzzle pieces to countries around the globe: China, Somalia, Russia and Pakistan are singled out for their contributions and world view. The United States and Russia are diplomatically drawn, too.

Besides the superb acting of an oft  pony-tailed Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker add something special to the cast. Renner,  a former make-up artist and singer, now actor and producer, starred in “The Hurt Locker”. Here he both charms, is charmed and vomits on camera. Whitaker, stellar in “The Crying Game” and “The Last King of Scotland”, knows how to mobilize his team.

Enjoy all the circular logograms, the non-linear typography,and the way another civilization prepares  for the next 3,000 years by gifting its language.

“Nocturnal Animals”

Tom Ford, I like your politics, your clothing line, your eyewear and make-up forays and your first film, “A Single Man” (2009). Your screenplay of the Austin Wright novel “Tony & Susan” just left me cold. What to say. I have not read the novel, but with  themes like unending discontent, abuse of power revenge, masculinity and protectiveness, and guilt with accompanying fear, one should feel something in the end besides alas.

Amy Adams is miscast as Susan. She does not play selfish well. Though she tries, Tilda  Swinton she is not. Somehow, she interprets her ex-husband novel’s dedication as a reason to examine her past actions. Because she liked to stay up at night, he called her a nocturnal animal. Now, that she has married a cheating husband, she now can feel how she hurt her first by cheating on him and aborting his child. “What goes around, comes around” seems to be a suburban cliché Susan can not bear.

Cleverly, as Susan reads the story of West Texan road rage violence and revenge, we are volleyed back and forth between  her truth and his (Tony’s) fiction. It is a story within a story that never meshes. The bullying “Deliverance” – like miscreants are the nocturnals. Their savage rapes and batterings are met with two years of chasing and vigilante closure. Susan has already gotten her just desserts, so take the book’s dedication at face value: Susan was Tony’s best critic. No threats are being made against Susan, but then everything is about Susan. I found her vacuous and boring, deserving of a table for one.

Tony ( Jake Gyllenhaal )  is the protagonist we feel for the most . As an author, he takes Susan’s advice and writes about someone besides himself. What could his character have done to protect his wife and  his daughter ?  When does a thinking man take visceral action? What is weakness and what is stupidity ?  Tony perseveres and Gyllenhaal does him justice. It is just that Director Ford tries so hard to make  an art film that almost every scene is extended one-hundred and twenty seconds too long. What is the point of massaging every camera angle when only the overwrought twelve-tone scale is left ?

One of the most overwrought sequences has Susan walking up a marble staircase in stacked-heeled boots. The rather stylized ascent, meant to show that Susan is ambitious, has viewers shoulder-shrugging and sighing, ” so what”.

A similar example of wasted-camera-lingering with no impact is the scene where our villain, Ray Marcus (  Aaron Taylor-Johnson ), squats on a self-plumbed toilet au natural. On his trailer’s extended porch, we even watch him check his wiped tissue~ a film first for me. See if he doesn’t remind you of  a younger “Prison Break” ‘s  “T- bag”.

My movie partner liked Michael Shannon’s portrayal as “the lung cancer sheriff”. He is a fine actor and shows real empathy to Gyllenhaal’s weakness-angst. Masculinity-driven, he gave a rather Clint Eastward aura to his role, but added a bit of dead-pan quirk.

The West Texas book chapters are very scary: four whacked roadies and car bumping aside. The arch New York speech and social commentary on vaginal rejuvenation, being married to a gay man, and the high-society quotable:” our world is a lot less painful than the real world” are to be noted. Naked, heavy women on red velvet couches must mean something. It can’t just be art.

Laura Linley adds to the cast with her role as Susan’s mother. Looking like Tricia Nixon, her three strands of mega pearls precede her  marriage warning. And there is a nightmarish scare for a baby named Willow.

“Nocturnal Animals” is a derivative noir thriller with an odd paradox: too much going on while not enough.