“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.

“ Beautiful Boy”

A family split apart by drugs is not fun to watch, but this is a film that should be seen for its empathetic value.. In 2017, over 10,000 lives were lost in the United States due to crystal meth use. This film does not show most of the grungy side effects, but it does provide facts on brain neural function decline while skipping the rotting teeth. Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen has just the right objectivity to frame the true story of the dynamics of a family in pain without shocking us with ravaged bodies.

Based on the memoirs of San Francisco journalist David Sheff, “Beautiful Boy” begins with the father seeking help in understanding what this drug is doing to his son. Steve Carell tries to be stoic as he asks a drug counselor ( Tim Hutton) what he can do to help his son, Nic. ( Timothee Chalamet). Through a series of flashbacks, the film gives us a history of fatherly love of the unconditional sort.

Sweet episodes of Carell singing John Lennon’s “ Beautiful Boy” to his own son at age four mesh into memories of father /son surfing, biking, and sharing experiences. They talk. They hug.

Events have not been perfect. There has been divorce and two siblings,ten years younger, vie for parental attention. Stepmother Karen, played beautifully by Amy Ryan, supports her husband and loves her stepson. Tension arises while protecting their younger children. Her artist easels and canvases eventually are crammed into Nic’s room which make him feel pushed out. When a druggy girlfriend and Nic break into the house, Karen chases them but gives up in a puddle of fraught sobs.

Chalamet’s interplay with his young siblings is some of the most affecting. When the six-year-old asks if Nic is on drugs again, we wince. The family turning lights on and off has symbolic meaning. Like all drug addictions, this is a roller-coaster ride of hospital calls, disappearances,in-house treatment centers, and relapses and recoveries. Nic sees the hopelessness in the process. When David mimicks his counselor’s bromide that “ relapse is part of the process of recovery”, Nic chides in with “ Dad, that’s like saying crashing is part of piloting!”

The editing of the first part of “Beautiful Boy” is perfectly nuanced, but then it is as if the editing team went on vacation. Signs of depression, isolation, heavy metal music, experimentation, and fear and anxiety of high expectations are touched upon. Hedonic excuses of “I felt better than I ever have” sink into more lies and hiding. “Taking the edge off stupid reality” has its draw backs in rainy searches, group sessions, internet tutorials on injecting safely, and dark poetry, and wild handwriting.

When Carell begins lunching with users to learn more of what his son is experiencing, we know he is going to snort to feel his son’s euphoria. Monsters are back two-fold. The young children, Daisy and Jasper, are the only ones who don’t seem to know of the single digit success rate for meth addicts. Nic’s biological mother, Vicky( Maura Tierney) gives her best, as does Nic’s AA sponsor, Spenser.

I have warned my three friends who have been through this ordeal not to see this film alone. Seeing a family from the rear view mirror is just too much. The pee specimens, the morgue visits, the vomit are dirges enough. When Nic says “ I am addicted to craziness. You are embarrassed. Mom should have gotten custody. You try to control everything”, the audience sighs. And when Carell says, “ I trust you, but we need proof” as he hands Chalamet the pee jar, we acutely understand Nic’s wry comment: “ That’s about as contradictory as it gets.” The film’s ending leaves us feeling the same way.

An endnote:
Film viewers, you will miss the tone of this memoir if you leave before the poem by Charles Bukowski, “ Let It Enfold” is recited by Nic. If you jump up and walk out, you have lost.

“Cafe Society”

“Cafe Society” was actually a legendary New York venue in the ’30’s. The first integrated club where jazz bloomed and Billy Holliday introduced the sobering “Strange Fruit”. Director and writer Woody Allen takes the name with its history and tries this time to mesh socio-economic classes. Sophisticates gather and network and glow. In this, his most recent film, he shows us that their longings are a lot like the rest of ours.  Now, acting on those yearnings may be what separates us again.

The film is about family, romance and one’s constant search for fulfillment. It is beautifully filmed in amber light by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and terrifically acted. The story is narrated, “There was this Jewish family.”  Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, our young Woody doppelgänger. His shoulders stoop like his , his fists clench like his, and his speech pattern mimics his. He is a romantic, doggedly so. Once smitten, the feelings last a lifetime. Moral ambiguity aside, viewers get it. ” In walked the past..”

Kristen Stewart does some of the best acting I have seen her do to date.  Her character, the first Vonnie, is open, practical, and still a tad unlikeable in her overt self-interest. Blake Lively, as the second Veronica and Ben’s first wife, lights up every scene she is in. I loved her in “The Age Of Adaline” ( reviewed  May 9th, 2015 ) , but here she has the most youthful sparkle and intuitive naïveté that I can’t imagine anyone else in the part.

Parker Posey in a blonde wig plays Rad Taylor, a older confidant to Bobby. Her role adds a Jane Austen mystique to the film and the era of white walls and cigarette holders. In sexual galavanting, things have not changed much.  Anna Camp is the “would be Jewish hooker” named Candy. Allen gets his “Woman In Red” old Barbara Stanwyck  movie clip in, too.

Bobby’s uncle is  a Hollywood magnate and his competitor for Vonnie # 1.  Steve Carell  affords Uncle Phil with just the right amount of narcissism and foiled longing to underscore the Woody persona that is always present. His sisters Evelyn (  Sari Lennick)  and Rose ( Jeanne Berlin) and mobster brother Ben (Corey Stoll ) fill out the family cast. Phil’s brother-in-law, the intellectual Leonard, ( Stephen Kunken ) has some of the best lines. ” You fall in love….you FALL.”

Allen assuredly is not the voice of moral clarity, but this film makes us believe he is trying. Families are messy. Rodgers and Hart’s songs say it all: think ” I’ll Take Manhattan”, ” You Took Advantage Of Me”, and ” I Wish I Was In Love Again”.

Enjoy the denouement which features a signed love letter fron Rudoph Valentino”. ( First year paper anniversaries may never be overlooked again. And unexpected flowers hold their warnings. )  Enjoy the Bronx chenille robes and period furniture, as well as, the cocktails and cream linen suits and the satin underwear of the Hollywood set. ( Can one  still find dotted Swiss?  ) The mob violence and cheap euphemisms ( cranial ventilation) get as tiresome as the egos, but “larger than life” has us all happier with just being ” life-sized.”

Poking fun at Jewish angst is best coming from Bobby’s mother’s mouth. When bemoaning her gangster brother Ben, ” a murderer and a Christian ( he converts in Sing-Sing) , what did I do to deserve this!” My favorite line leads us right back to Woody. When Leonard spouts that the “unexamined life is not worth living”, we get ” the examined one is no bargain”. This may be the only apology we get from Woody.

I enjoyed the film immensely, and think it adds much to the Allen oeuvre.

“The Big Short”

What makes “The Big  Short” so interesting is that viewers find themselves rooting for the hypocrites, and forgetting the taxpaying middle class footing the bill for unbridled capitalism. See this film and vote for Bernie Sanders. You will want to see more done to stop this fraudulent system of ours, believe me.

The first fifteen minutes of the film is slow. The whacky inserts of bubble- bathing beauties explaining financial terms and bundled mortgages of sub-prime equating with dog shit wrapped in cat shit means the writers knew this, too. How can something so serious about Wall Street morality be seen as comical! The dark humor is couched in “this is how the white boys play” with a token Chinese math whiz and a black, female  insurance hotshot worked in.

Saturday Night Live writer Adam McKay is forty-seven, and he brings both writing and directing skills to this film. Based on the mortgage lending crisis told in Michael Lewis’ best selling book,”The Big Short”,this film of the same title derides the fraudulent practices of our rate regulators,bank lenders and realtors. Serendipity is noted,as well as genius. True to actual events, one financial team caught wind of a deal because of a wrong telephone number. And one financial relationship was instigated through dog walking.

The metaphors and similies are acted out, like when chef Anthony Bourdain explains CDOs (collateral diversified offerings) as old fish thrown in a stew. We are introduced to synthetic CDOs next. We learn of prospectuses that don’t make it through the bank lobby and of investment strategies as effective as trying to win the Indianapolis 500 with a llama.

The characters in this film are so well portrayed that my husband did not even recognize Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert, the Wall Street dropout turned seed farmer. Pitt’s subtly  pulling the price tag off his tie as he wears it is perfect for a guy who has given up wearing the uniform. Christian Bale as Dr. Michael Burry made the most of his intellect,glass eye and shoeless feet and drums. Steve Carell with his demons is hysterical in group therapy. Marisa Tomei, as his understanding wife, is exceptional as her husband’s whispering confidant. ” You always try to be the virtuous one. Saints don’t live on Park Avenue.” Ryan Gosling at the American Securitization Forum in Las Vegas has just the right eye-pop. The convention by the way was referred to as “a piñata of white people who suck golf.”

The film includes cultural references to colonic appointments, “buzzkill”, and busts of Caesar at Caesar’s Palace rendering to Caesar what is said to be Caesar’s. The “hot hand fallacy” is borrowed from basketball to show us another investment banking no-no. There are no heroes in this re-telling, only blind regulators and the wealthy morally bankrupt.

The fraudulent market continues to be “the bedrock” of our Capitalistic System as all the “realists and fools” take sides. There was a bailout for the banks. They were too big to fail. Five trillion in pension money disappeared and six million homes were lost, granted many that never should have been sold. One banker from  Credit  Suisse was  jailed. Bear Sternes, Salomon Brothers etc.. free to continue their greediness. One of my favorite lines in this film about shorting the housing market was Steve Carell’s “He is so transparent in his self-interest that I sort of respect the man.” Bragging and confessing is at the crux of the American economy, and this film shows us why.