Daily Archives: February 10th, 2019

Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Vice

Vice

Amy Adams and Christian Bale play political power-couple Lynne and Dick Cheney in Vice.

As the world becomes more and more confusing, we tend to focus on the things that are right there in front of us. While ignoring the massive forces that actually change and shape our lives. With people working longer and longer hours, for less and less. When we do have free time, the last thing we want is complicated analysis of our government, lobbying, international trade agreements, and tax bills.

You would wonder would a film like Vice work at this time? A film about former US Vice-President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne? A film about politics of the past? Turns out there’s more than meets the eye.

The film opens in the White House as the September 11th attacks happen. Instead of talking things out, Dick Cheney gives an immediate order. The film then flashes back to Wyoming in 1963. Dick Cheney and Lynne are married and living in Lynne’s parents’ house. Dick was originally a student at Yale University but his persistent alcoholism caused him to drop out. He takes work as an electrical lineman, but that doesn’t satisfy his in-laws at all. It’s after he gets busted by a cop for driving drunk, his second DUI, that Lynne tells Dick to clean up his life. All of this is narrated through a man named Kurt: a typical ‘middle-class’ American.

Fast forward to 1969; Republican president Richard Nixon is in the White House and Cheney has been hired as an intern. He meets a slimy scheister named Donald Rumsfeld who is Nixon’s policy advisor. Cheney works under Rumsfeld’s wing and tries to juggle family and political commitments. Cheney also overhears a conversation between Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon about the bombing operation in Cambodia. There, Cheney learns about the true power of the executive branch. Rumsfeld’s abrasive attitude has an effect on Cheney as both distance themselves from Nixon. After Nixon resigns in the heat of the Watergate Scandal, both men are promoted: Cheney to Chief Of Staff to the new President Ford and Rumsfeld to Secretary Of Defense. Their jobs only last two years as a Democrat, Jimmy Carter, is elected president.

After leaving the Oval Office in 1977, Dick decides to pursue politics on a state level by running for the seat of House Representative for Wyoming; Wyoming is a state that has only one seat in Congress. Dick’s campaign starts on a lackluster note as he delivers an uncharismatic speech. However he soon suffers his first heart attack. While recovering in the hospital, Lynne decides to deliver speeches for him. Her speeches are more winning to the public and it succeeds in helping him to win his House seat.

Then Reagan becomes president in 1980. Cheney is able to provide influence to the agenda promoting conservative pro-business polices like promoting fossil fuels (which puts an end to Carter’s goal of more solar power) and also ending news media showing both sides of the issue, which paves the way for one-sided media like Fox News on the right and CNN on the left. In the meantime, Dick and Lynne are shocked to learn that their teenage daughter Mary is a lesbian. Nevertheless Dick agrees to be supportive to her, despite being a right-wing politician.

Dick is promoted to Secretary Of Defense during the tenure of George H. W. Bush and has a pivotal role in the Gulf War of 1991. Also during the time of the senior Bush, Dick meets his son George W. Bush, who’s a clumsy nimrod. Dick has desires to be President but after Bill Clinton is elected, he decides to retire from public life to spare the scrutiny for the sake of Mary. Cheney then becomes CEO of Haliburton while Lynne raises golden retrievers and writes books. Then starts an epilogue claiming Cheney lived the rest of his life happy and healthy with his family out of the public eye, then the credits roll.

But wait. That’s not really the end of the film. Dick is still CEO of Haliburton, but he meets with George W. Bush who’s the Governor of Texas. He wants to run for President for the 2000 Election not because he desires the power to himself, but to please his father. Cheney agrees to be his running mate provided Bush delegates ‘mundane’ executive responsibilities to him like foreign policy and energy. Things like family values issues, he doesn’t want to get involved with for the sake of Mary. Bush is elected president despite a hugely controversial election. On his first day as Vice-President, he learns Rumsfeld is back as Secretary Of Defense, and is still as slimy as he was when they first met. Added to the team of making foreign policy and defense decisions is legal counsel David Addington and Chief Of Staff Scooter Libby.

The film then returns to the 9/11 attacks and when Dick gave the immediate orders. After that, Cheney and Rumsfeld team up over initiating and presiding over the US attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan (which Kurt finds himself a soldier in both those wars). Cheney struggles with his heart attacks as the War Of Terror mounts. Nevertheless he continues through his vice-presidency which includes instituting the Unitary Executive Theory, his role in the Plame Affair, the accidental shooting of Harry Whittington (which he never apologized to him for). His actions are shown to cause thousands of deaths overseas, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and record-low approval ratings upon leaving office. Rumsfeld is even forced to resign. Nobody likes him in Washington.

However it doesn’t end there. Cheney is about to die of heart failure while waiting for a new heart. Just as he says his teary goodbye to Lynne, Liz and Mary, Kurt is killed in an auto accident while jogging. Sure enough, Kurt’s heart is the perfect match for Dick’s transplant in March 2012. Then Liz runs for the House seat of Wyoming where she announces during a debate her opposition to same-sex marriage. This causes Mary to cease communication with Liz. Liz is now the Rep of Wyoming. At the end, Cheney says to us all he regrets nothing.

When you see one renowned film by a certain director, you are impressed, or interested, with what you see. When you see a second film by that director, you get a better sense of what their film making style is all about. I’ve seen The Big Short and I was very impressed with what I saw. However, when I saw Vice, I liked what I saw but throughout the film, I was thinking “Okay, I get Adam McKay’s filmmaking style.” I’ll admit throughout the film, I was seeing a lot of elements similar with what I saw in The Big Short. However I saw some new elements in Vice as well. Basically Vice told me more about Adam McKay than it did about the Cheneys. I noticed in both films, Adam likes to toy around with the story. He also likes to include references to the time of the story both in terms of the political landscape and of pop culture moments. Adam even admits that Vice is a ‘true story’ or as true as it gets since Dick is a private person.

The events in the film are events that are widely known, but are seen through the eyes and imagination of Adam McKay. The characters of the various politicians are also through McKay’s eyes, which may explain why they come off as cartoonish. It almost seems like the Cheneys are the only political figures that don’t come across as cartoon characters, despite also being portrayed as crazy and conniving. Like is Rumsfeld right? Is the top job of the Vice President to ‘wait for the president to die?’ The influence of Cheney’s decisions and politicking are shown to have a huge presence in American life and politics for many decades and have a huge influence now. Even the reason why Donald Trump became president.

However the biggest standout is having the story of Dick Cheney narrated by Kurt: a fictitious veteran of both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kurt even narrated while he’s dead and his heart is inside Cheney! I think the point of having Kurt, the average American, narrate the story is to show how much Dick’s decisions and political influence us Americans. It shows why we get such empty promises in terms of our economy, it shows why the middle-class is shrinking. It also even shows why we’re all so frustrated, we turn to dumbed-down entertainment to escape this frustration of American politics in our lives. No matter what serious issues we have to deal with in our lives, we’d rather tune out and watch another Fast And The Furious sequel. Adam demonstrates it all, through Kurt.

Kudos to Adam McKay for delivering another bizarrely-constructed but thought-provoking sad comedy. His direction and writing didn’t work as well as it did for The Big Short, but it worked well too and was very entertaining. Christian Bale was excellent as Dick Cheney. He did an excellent job in depicting both the young Dick and the older Dick Cheney too. Amy Adams also did an excellent job in depicting Lynne Cheney throughout the film and as she aged too. The film also showed how Lynne had an impact on some of Dick’s choices and how she acquired political influence of her own. Dick knew how to deliver policies and decisions, but didn’t know how to make speeches. Lynne knew how to deliver a speech. Amy did a very good job in demonstrating Lynne’s political savvy. The most surprising performance came from Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush. He was completely unrecognizable and dead-on! Steve Carell may not have delivered an accurate performance of Donald Rumsfeld but he was dead-on as the slimeball Rumsfeld as seen through McKay’s eyes. Also Jesse Plemons was an entertaining scene-stealer as Kurt. Instead of making Kurt look like something ridiculous, he made Kurt work.

Vice is a sad comedy about Dick Cheney and American politics. We both laugh and mourn how all this came to be.

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Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

Rhapsody

In Bohemian Rhapsody, Rami Malek captures the essence of Freddie Mercury to a tee.

The musical biopic Bohemian Rhapsody came out in movie theatres this year. We’ve seen music biographies before. The big question is does this film simply chronicle Freddy Mercury’s life? Or does it do much more?

The film begins just as Queen is about to step to the stage to perform in the 1985 Live Aid Concert. The film then flashes back to 1970 when Smile is an English band consisting of Brian May, Roger Taylor and singer Tim Staffell. Faroukh ‘Freddie’ Bulsara is a Farsi immigrant who studies and also works as a baggage handler at Heathrow airport. Freddie faces a lot of discrimination for the color of his skin and mockery because of his hyperdontia which makes him look like he has a mega-overbite. However Freddie does lose himself in rock and roll.

One night, Staffell quits Smile in disappointment. Freddie was there attending the show. When he sees what happened, he asks to join the band. The band gets a rocky start as they play at small college gigs, but it looks promising and Freddie fully believes in them all. The rock singer gig does not go well with his family who feels he should earn his living more ‘honestly.’ Freddie also wins the attraction of college student Mary Austin during a clothes shopping trip. They start dating and romancing.

Over time, Queen gets bigger and they soon have to record an EP. It will cost a lot of money and Freddie agrees to sell the van for money. The EP is a success and it attracts major music producers including one from EMI Records interested in the band. The band changes their name to Queen and Freddie even legally changes his name to Freddie Mercury. The band is acquired by John Reid, Elton John’s manager, and assistant manager Paul Prenter. They bring the band to a gig on BBC’s Top Of The Pops where the band lip syncs Killer Queen. As success grows, including success in the US, Mary and Freddie get engaged. However soon after Freddie learns of his bisexuality.

The band try to record their album A Night At The Opera and the song Bohemian Rhapsody, but the song is too long and hard to perform. On top of that, producer Ray Foster is antagonistic on the band for both the song and the music for the whole album. After Foster refuses it as a single, Freddie gets a local DJ to play Bohemian Rhapsody. The song opens to a lot of negative reviews, but also scores big on the charts worldwide. However Freddie starts an affair with Prenter and has to call off the engagement with Mary. Mary is devastated, but agrees to remain friends.

In the film, the band has continued success in the early 1980’s with We Will Rock You. However the band experience tension both by Freddie’s lavish partying lifestyle and the increasing controlling ways of Prenter. Freddie even cheats on Paul with a waiter, but the waiter tells Freddie to find him after he finds himself. The friction between Freddie and the band grows to the point Freddie leaves the band to record a solo album upon the direction of Prenter. However it becomes obvious how much Prenter wants a piece of the action and Freddie both breaks up with him and fires him.

Soon Freddie learns he has HIV right when the devastating AIDS epidemic was at its most troubling times. He returns to the band confessing it was wrong for them to leave. They’re offered an appearance at the 1985 Live Aid Concert which will be broadcast worldwide to raise money for food supplies during the famine in Africa. This will be the band’s comeback concert, but it will take a lot of effort to bring the band back to their level of performance.

Just before the concert, Freddie confronts his parents to make peace with them. Freddie is also supported backstage by a pregnant Mary along with her husband David. Bob Geldof is hoping for a lot of call-in donations through this concert. Then Queen get on stage and it’s like they never missed a step. The crowd is blown away, television crowds are dazzled, and the donations accelerate like nobody’s business. Queen was back and alive!

There have been musical biographies in films done many times before. In order to make a winning story about a musician, the film will definitely have to include the music. That’s what made the musician great. The film will also have to include key events of the person’s life: the artistic moments, the triumphant moments and the struggles, even any tragedies. It’s all a matter of deciding the right moments for the right beginning, middle and end of the film.

The film does a smart move in making the Live Aid Concert the pivotal moment for Freddie Mercury both as the scene where the movie starts before flashing back in time and ultimately ending. The film also does a good job in picking out moments such as when Freddie joins the band Smile, changes it to Queen, first hits it big with Killer Queen releases their iconic Bohemian Rhapsody, faces friction as well as declining fame in the early 80’s, Freddie’s HIV diagnosis, and their return to winning the public at Live Aid.

However the film also risks disappointing a lot of Queen fans because of how inaccurate the story is. Despite Jim ‘Miami’ Beach being the film’s co-producer and May and Taylor being music consultants, The five biggest inaccuracies Queen fans are most likely to notice are, firstly, Freddie was actually introduced to Brian May and Roger Taylor of Smile by singer Tim Staffell when Staffell wanted to pursue further studies. Secondly, We Will Rock You was written and recorded in the late-70’s rather than the early-80’s. Thirdly, John Deacon was actually Queen’s fourth bassist rather than the original bassist. Fourthly, Queen never split up nor did they get back together at Live Aid. Freddie may have had solo work — the most famous being Barcelona: the duet with Montserrat Caballet — but Roger Taylor also had a solo album too. Fifthly, Freddie learned he was HIV-positive in 1987: after Live Aid. Those that know the true Queen story will know that a lot of these moments in the film were mostly common music-movie cliches rather than the truth about Queen.

Despite failing a lot of Queen fans with some of the inaccuracies and cliches, the film does succeed in a lot of ways and even presents some truths even Queen fans knew. Freddie did credit his extra teeth for his singing, he adored his cats, he held outlandish parties, the song Bohemian Rhapsody was considered too long and too ridiculous at first, Freddie did keep his ordeal with HIV and AIDS private as he did not want to be an object of pity, and finally his friendship with Mary Austin lasted until his death and she did live next door to him even while married to David. The film does stick to the truth in a lot of areas, including that of how Paul Prenter was a controlling person in Freddie’s life. However another added quality is that the film does an excellent job of capturing the essence and feel of Queen’s music. Those that haven’t heard much of Queen’s music will experience songs they never heard before. Those that are fans of the band will fall in love with the songs again. Also those that want to be rock musicians themselves will be inspired to pursue their dreams after watching the film. You not only hear the music, but you can also get the feel of a rock performer too.

The film has already grossed $844.4 million worldwide at press-time with $210.6 million coming from North America. However the film has also faced a ton of heat during the awards season. The cause for all of this was for director Bryan Singer. As you know, Singer has faced criminal charges of being a sex offender. How it happened that Dexter Fletcher stepped into directing the remainder of the film upon the departure of Bryan Singer is that Singer was fired after having violent clashes with Rami Malek. Singer, and not Fletcher, was credited as the film’s director. The awards season has seen the film win many accolades which many have voiced their displeasure about. Possibly due to hostility during the #MeToo movement, many are speaking their mind as if they’re saying a win for Bohemian Rhapsody is a win for a sex offender.  I personally feel that Fletcher should have been credited as director. However despite the fact that Singer was fired, people are still unhappy. Makes you wonder what will satisfy them all? Denying the film a release and trashing it altogether? This is a reflection on how toxic and bullying the free speech of social media can be.

Anthony McCarten in cooperation with Peter Morgan may have written a story that was more cliched than truth, but it did capture a lot of the essence of Queen and a lot of the essence of Freddie Mercury. As for the ending, I can understand why they went for the heavy drama by ending with the Live Aid Concert. I’d rather they went with the moment Freddie records The Show Must Go On. Those who know the story behind that will recognize it as one of the biggest triumphs of Mercury’s career and a testament of his mental toughness.

The film also captured the essence of Brian, John and Roger well too. Co-director Dexter Fletcher did a very good job of picking up where Singer left off and creates an exciting experience for the audience. However the biggest triumph is the performance of Rami Malek. Until Bohemian Rhapsody, he was facing the common difficulty of actors of Middle Eastern descent with limited opportunities. It almost seemed like the biggest thing he would ever be known for is playing the Pharaoh in the Night At The Museum movies. This also was not an easy task because Malek was not originally a fan of Queen. However that all changed when he was given the role. Malek was excellent in his performance and will blow away anyone who sees this film.

The actors portraying Brian, Roger and John — Gwilym Lee, Ben hardy and Joseph Mazzello, respectively — also added to the film. Lucy Boynton was also excellent as the friend Mary Austin. Even minor performances like Tom Hollander as Jim Beach, Mike Myers as Ray Foster, and Allen Leech as Paul Prenter did very well with the roles they were given. Julian Day did a very good job with the costuming, Aaron Haye did an excellent job with the set design, and the producers did a very good job in choosing the right songs for the film.

Bohemian Rhapsody has some noticeable errors in the film. However the film succeeds in capturing the spirit of Freddie Mercury, capturing the music of Queen and capturing the experience of a rock star. No wonder it dazzles those that see it.

Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: A Star Is Born

A Star Is Born

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper play two singers in love in A Star Is Born.

Right now we seem to have a lot of reboots in terms of entertainment. Reboots of TV series, reboots in music and reboots in movies too. A Star Is Born is a reboot of a film done three times before, but does it translate for the present?

I know I mentioned about a lot of reboots happening in my introduction. There are a lot of successful reboots right now, but there have also been some reboots that flopped too. What makes a successful reboot isn’t just rehashing something people loved in the past. It also involves making it relevant to the present and also have the ability to both please fans of the past materials and win over new fans. One of the best cinematic examples of a reboot is last year’s It. The cinematic version of It worked last year because of two smart choices. The first being it would divide 28 years earlier to the time of the plot in two separate films. The second being the childhood part of the story would be set in 1989 and the adulthood part of the story to be set in the present, unlike setting the childhood part in 1958 and the adulthood part in 1986 as in the novel and the miniseries.

Moving onto A Star Is Born, we’re dealing with a film that has been done three times before. The first being in 1937 starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the second being in 1954 starring Judy Garland and James Mason, and the third being in 1976 starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. For Bradley Cooper to take on the project and turn it into something winning for the present, he had to make a lot of choices.

Some elements would be very similar to what was done in films past, while some elements would have to be new and relevant and believable for the present. There were a lot of elements of all three past editions that worked very well such as a singer struggling to make it, the wash-up who discovers her and promotes her to greatness and even loves her, and the man encountering a substance problem which hurts his marriage and ultimately takes his life.

There were some elements from the separate films that he had to include. For example 1937 and 1954 were about an actress trying to make it and a washed-up actor promoting her and loving here. 1976 was about singers for the first time. The choice to have singers and in the field of country music as in 1976 worked well for the film. I will focus more on that later. Also the tribute Ally gave to Judy Garland was a subtle reminder in the film of the most famous version of the story.

Then there were the more complicated choices. First off, Bradley Cooper may have proven himself as an actor, but not as a singer or a director in the past. Bradley had to give himself the practice and even have the duet scene done in front of a live crowd. Sometimes only the real thing can work. Secondly, there were two factors involving Lady gaga. One factor was she had limited acting experience with her biggest previous role being her minor role in Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. The other factor was to present Gaga as a country singer. We all know her as the modern flamboyant pop icon and most of us could not see her as a country star. Even seeing Gaga portray Ally as a common pop star later on was challenging because of her ‘grand diva’ image. However Gaga made it work and came off as a very believable country singer. Her songs from the film have also won her fans over too. Thirdly is the chemistry between the two. The two had to come across not just as two singers but as a couple in love. The chemistry between Jackson and Ally worked excellently and made for a believable story. Star power can only go so far. They have to make it work on screen and they did it. Fourthly is the music. In order to make this version of A Star Is Born about two contemporary singers, the reboot had to have original songs that fit the film and fit the genres of country of pop, whatever genre was needed in what scene. The songs fit the film to a tee and proved to be winners off the screen too as Shallow and I’ll Never Love Again have charted.

Top accolades go to Bradley Cooper. The reboot was originally intended in 2011 to be directed by Clint Eastwood and have Beyonce as the lead. Beyonce’s pregnancy interfered with the story and it lead to four years of chaos with both Beyonce and Eastwood eventually leaving the project. Cooper picked it up, joined co-writer Will Fetters, and saw it as his chance for his directorial debut. He was first trying to get Beyonce to agree to the project, but it was decided in 2016 that Lady Gaga would be the lead. This proves to be a success in acting, directing, co-writing with Fetters and Eric Roth, and co-producing. The story comes across as relevant and believable to the current times and winning with the public once again.

It’s not just Cooper. Lady Gaga comes off excellent in what is her first lead role. We all know how Lady Gaga can really go into a character as seen in her on-stage performances and her music videos. However this was her first major acting role and singers are a bit of a gamble in terms of casting them as actors in movies; they’re either sink or swim. Sure, she knows how to sing, but the challenge was for her to handle a lead role. She handled the role of Ally with believability from start to finish. Even with the singing, Gaga showed she can sing country very well and also make for a believable common pop star. The film is as much Gaga’s triumph as it is Cooper’s.

There’s also more winning performances than just Cooper and Gaga. There’s also veteran actor Sam Elliott not just coming across as a believable cowboy half-brother in Bobby, but also stealing each scene he was in. That’s what makes a winning supporting actor. Andrew Dice Clay is not only good as Ally’s father Lorenzo, but is unrecognizable! Rafi Gavron also comes across well as Ally’s manager who has an axe to grind with Jackson. He did a good job in making Rez hateable. Dave Chappelle and Anthony Ramos were also very good in their supporting roles, despite having roles that weren’t that challenging or lacked screen time.

A Star Is Born goes beyond being a simple reboot. The story is made relevant to the times, the actors deliver a believable story and a love with chemistry, and the music is winning. This is not just another reboot. This is a reboot that works big-time!