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Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Vice

Vice

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

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) and his daughters Mary and Liz having opposing views on same-sex marriage. His actions are shown to cause thousands of deaths overseas, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq, and record-low approval ratings upon leaving office.

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 her. 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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Movie Review – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Catching Fire does include some elements that keeps it being too much like the first Hunger Games.

Catching Fire does include some elements that keeps it being too much like the first Hunger Games.

NOTE: I know this is awfully late to post a review of Catching Fire but I’ve had another lack of ambition in terms of writing this year. Those of you who’ve been subscribed to my blog for more than a year will remember the six week gap that began after the Oscars and left me with a March of nothing. Fortunately this gap ends today. However it explains this review coming awfully late.

I’m sure most of you have already seen The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Heck, there are still people seeing it as it’s still in the Top 10 at the box office this weekend and about to pass the $400 million mark. In this review, I won’t focus too much on the nitty gritty as I normally do. However I will post my thoughts on it as I was watching. Being one who has not read the novels, I will have a lot to say from what I remember seeing.

Those of you who have read my review of the original Hunger Games may have gotten a sense I did not read the novels. Especially since I made guesses about what was to happen in future movies. The funny thing is in the first movie, I thought the new love between Katniss and Peeta was real. I should have known Katniss did it for the sake of both of them winning. If it was a real relationship, why would boyfriend Gale applaud at the end?

One thing about the ending of the first. It provides the catharsis for President Snow to visit Katniss and even threaten her. The funny thing about the beginning is that it tells the whole truth about Katniss’ love triangle. There’s Gale whom she truly loves. And there’s Peeta whom she faked love for the both of them winning but he truly loves her and is crushed with the truth. There’s also the whole Hunger Games charade. Champions have to tour year after year across the districts. That mean the Katniss/Peeta charade has to be kept alive. It’s not an easy thing to do as people see them as this thing and rebels are executed by militia. Even harder is Peeta adding to the charade by proposing marriage to Katniss.

As one who hasn’t read the novel, the Quarter Quell came to me as a total surprise. Each year you have kids killing for the win and now you have winners killing each other off? I’m sure there were others who thought: “Not another Hunger Games. Twenty-four winners competing to be the one still alive? Why?” I was confused by it all, even though I was made aware that this was part of President Snow’s plan. I was also thinking is this was going to be your typical movie sequel where they rehash the elements of the original.

The Quarter Quell does appear to be redundant as it involves a parade around the stadium and even the contestants introducing themselves to the crowd and showing off their costumes. Even the new high-tech training does appear to be a case of rehashing from the first. Having Heymitch back as their coach and Cinna back as their costumer didn’t make things that much fresher either. There was one new element. There’s Katniss interacting and even befriending some of the other contestants before the competition.

Then comes the actual competition. There comes deadly rivalry from some of the contestants. There’s even potential fatality from some of the virtual effects created by the games masters. The way Katniss reaches out and befriends some of the other contestants is only slightly repetitive of the first but it does have its own original moments with her befriending of Mags, Wiress, Beetee and even the obnoxious Johanna. The Katniss/Peeta relationship in this movie had me on the untrusting side. It left me wondering if this was real or fake for the show again. Even the addition of Finnick leaves me wondering about the love triangle as I wondered is he really helping or is he trying to get a piece of Katniss?

It isn’t until the very end of the movie that I learned that the real battle in this Hunger Games movie is not Katniss against the other competitors but actually Katniss against the whole Hunger Games institution. It was obvious she knew what President Snow was up to. It also gave Katniss a sense that the other contestants in the Quarter Quell were as much a victim of this whole Hunger Games system as she was. It was evident that they all wanted out and would be lucky to survive getting out. The ending of the movie left me with a lot of questions about what to expect for the final part of the trilogy. Make that ‘parts’ since the final novel will follow the examples of Harry Potter and Twilight and divide it into two movies. Way to go, Hollywood!

Now onto the technical stuff. Jennifer Lawrence was good but not that spectacular. I’ll admit that I compared it to her Oscar-winning role of Silver Linings Playbook and it just doesn’t compare. It’s hard not to now! Josh Hutcherson turned Peeta from a lonely homely boy to a boy now angry and hurting. Sam Claflin helped make Finnick the one fresh character that added to the movie this time around. Actually the characters of the contestants of the Quarter Quell were all quite good in terms of both their characterizations and in making their characters human and likeable. The characters of those pulling the strings of the Hunger Games like Stanley Tucci’s Caesar and Elizabeth Banks’ Effie may have come across as irritating and stockish at times but they added to the story. Actually they added to the theme of the movie of how there are these cartoonish people pulling the strings of the show while the contestants are mostly the real 3D people in this game. Even though they have a show to put on and a game to kill for the win, they still feel and hurt.

Now onto the technical stuff. Francis Lawrence did a good job of directing, even though there was nothing fresh added. Actually he’s slated to direct both Mockingjay movies. We’ll see how he works it. Once again I admit I’ve never read the novel so I can’t say how good of an adaptation Simon Beaufoy and Michael De Bruyn did. I will say that it did seem too much like the first. James Newton Howard did a very good job in terms of the score. The visual effects team did an excellent job with the effects. Trish Summerville did a very good job with the costumes. It’s unfortunate that the first movie’s costumes didn’t get an Oscar nomination. I shouldn’t be surprised since the Academy normally favors timepiece costuming over fantasy costuming. But is it deserving, even again here.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is bound to get a lot of people who haven’t read the novel surprised, then questioning, then surprised and then guessing at the end what to expect next. The good thing about this movie is that even though there is some redundancy, it doesn’t resort to Twilight’s trick of focusing on hot guys. It knows it’s mostly about the drama and sticks to it. That’s the best thing and I hope they keep it up for the two Mockingjay movies.