“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.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

“Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing, Missouri” is one of the most intricately plotted films I have seen since “Murder On The Orient Express”.  We begin with three ragged billboards and a rear view mirror image of Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes. Her sad eyes spawn an idea. She strokes her chin, bites her nails, and backs her car up: she is going to stoke her anger for the whole county to see.

Mildred becomes known as “The Billboard Lady”. For a year, she rents ( for 5,000 dollars a month) the three roadside signs. Blood red backgrounds hold her three messages: “RAPED WHILE DYING” ; “AND STILL NO ARRESTS”; “HOW COME , CHIEF WILLOUGHBY ?”

Her determination for revenge is so great that we think of teaching our children “ anger danger” along with “stranger danger”. The local priest tells Mildred: “Everyone is with you about Angela, but no one is with you on this.”

Church seemingly has nothing to offer Mildred. The priest deplores the revenge-filled billboards, and tells her so. Mildred gives him a hate-filled  diatribe, but later is cleansed by her burning suffering. McDormand is not exactly a Phoenix rising, but rather a more rational and compassionate soul after a series of horrendous misjudgments alter other lives, yet still keeps her seeking her daughter’s killer.

We learn about Angela, Mildred’s murdered daughter and begin to understand Mildred’s crazed anger. Mildred’s guilt for words spoken is paramount. Angela’s brother Robbie, played by Lucas Hedges of “ Manchester By-The-Sea” fame, is grieving, too, and his mother’s unconstrained ways embarrass him. Her outing to the dentist, her small town encounters, all trail  unwanted stories.

An unhinged revenge film this could be, yet the thought that what we do to each other matters gives this film a depth that garnered The Golden Globe Best Dramatic Picture.

Writer and director, Martin McDonagh, has created a  screenload of characters who are as interesting and insight-producing as I have seen. Golden Globe accolades have been given also to McDormand for Best Actress and to Sam Rockwell for Best Supporting Actor.

The Oscars are just weeks away! And more honors are certainly to be won.

The police chief and subject of Mildred’s wrath is Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson. He is a good man, who is dying of pancreatic cancer and will leave a young family behind. Mildred does not identify with his pain, even after he shoots himself. The film often surprises and shocks as it moves are sympathies around one character and then another. We learn that revenge does not ease pain, and that some people are slower learners than others in that anger begets anger.

Dinner with James ( Peter Dinklage) proves ineffective as a softener . Mildred wears her headband bandanna like Rambo’s sister. Her ex-husband, Charlie, ( John Hawkes ) is in the restaurant with his young date. Charlie’s date brings some comic relief with her dumb-witted remarks and questions. “Polio” and “polo” tend to confuse her. Hawkes does a superb job of showing his deeper connection to Mildred while not able to deal with her unchained sorrow. He is more than a neck-grabber.

Fire serves as symbol again and again. After Willoughby’s suicide, Sam Rockwell plays the role of a lifetime as Dixon. Dixon was Willoughby’s protegee. He is grieving, too, for the only man in town who did not make fun of his denseness. Dixson’s  mother is the stereotyped racist ( Sandy Martin ). We come to understand him, and we champion his remarkable growth as a  person who shows  profound change for  the better.

Does grief kill empathy? An incredible nature visitation (or what I call the  fawn sequence ) tells us “No”. This film is quite an emotional ride.