When I heard that Adam McKay was following up his 2015 The Big Short with a biopic about Dick Cheney I thought it sort of made sense but also didn’t make sense at all. On one hand it was obvious from his last movie that McKay was transitioning from making broad comedies like Anchorman and Talladega Nights to making overtly political satires, so in some ways a Cheney movie seemed like a logical evolution of that, on the other hand who the hell wants to make or see a movie about the W. Bush administration in 2018? That seems like a bad idea firstly because those years were hell and no one wants to relive them, secondly because enough time probably hasn’t passed to really bring anything new to the story with hindsight, and thirdly because with Donald Trump in office a lot of the awfulness of the Bush years almost feels quaint by comparison. Truth be told, despite Bush’s slightly better tact and decorum than the current white house occupant, he was in fact pretty terrible and a lot of the worst aspects of modern Republican politics were very much alive when he was in white house as well and a reminder of that might be in order.
Vice does skip around in the timeline here and there but generally the film follows the life of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from his time as a hard drinking your adult in Wyoming to his time working with Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) in the Nixon white house through to his time as a house representative and as a Halliburton executive until finally landing on the role that would make him infamous to history as the vice president to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). Along the way we see him interacting with his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) and daughters Mary Cheney (Alison Pill) and Liz Cheney (Lily Rabe).
Let’s start with what is clearly Vice’s strongest and most talked about element: Christian Bale’s performance in the lead role. Bale is a 44 year old Englishman who has very recently been in good enough shape to play Batman who is here playing a noticeably overweight American politician who was at his most famous between the ages of 59 and 67 and he has made is so that you don’t question this at all. Bale has clearly done one of his trademark absurd weight gains for the role and he’s presumably using a lot of makeup but there is clearly a skill in managing to bring everything together and making these transformative elements still feel human. Obviously Cheney isn’t the most emotional of characters, especially not in this telling of his life, so you don’t exactly get to see Bale doing any real “Oscar clip” scenes but he does adopt the voice pretty effectively and is generally quite good in the role beyond the obvious physical transformation.
The downside of this is that Bale going above and beyond the call of duty as much as he does kind of makes some of his co-stars look bad in comparison. In particular I’m thinking of Steve Carrell, who certainly manages to make himself look reasonably like a young Donald Rumsfeld, but who seems completely incapable of changing the sound of his voice for this or any other role. That seems particularly odd in this role given that Rumsfeld, Mr. unknonwn knowns, is probably most famous for using language to slink out of accountability and just generally feels like should be more complicated than what we see here. Also probably more complicated than what we see here is the real George W. Bush, who Sam Rockwell depicts as being not just an easily manipulated personality but as someone who borders on being “special needs.” You don’t really see a lot of Bush in the movie, which is partly by design given that the film is very much of the belief that Cheney was calling the shots through that whole administration, but when he is on screen Rockwell’s performance rarely rises above the level of SNL impression. Amy Adams fares better as Lynne Cheney, in part because she isn’t burdened with doing an impression of an overly familiar face, but the movie doesn’t give her a ton to do either, it’s basically a typical “long suffering biopic wife” role with some kind of contradictory hints that she might be a sort of Lady MacBeth behind his rise.
The film’s view of Dick Cheney will be familiar to anyone who lived through the Bush years. Back then the theory was always that Cheney was the real brains behind Bush and that he was driving events largely out of greed for oil and in service of Haliburton and other oil contractors. Given my political leanings I don’t necessarily doubt this narrative but I’ve always assumed it was basically unproven speculation and simply reenacting it in a movie like this doesn’t exactly seem like confirmation. I might have preferred a documentary that goes into the records and really tried to prove what it going on here. Instead what we get is something more along the lines of The Big Short: a fourth wall breaking satire which finds amusing ways to lay out political facts that uneducated viewers might not be aware of. That approach worked well in The Big Short, in part because the financial system is legitimately complicated and it felt less condescending when really simplified metaphors are offered for it and partly because that raucous tone generally fit that story a bit better. That was a movie about a class of people so drunk off of profits that they refused to see that they were heading for disaster, so all the irreverence kind of fit the mood. Vice tries to do the same but doesn’t realize that it’s kind of telling the opposite story, that of a master manipulator who was very much seeing the big picture and was allegedly in control the whole time.
As it’s been released Vice has become one of the year’s most divisive films. Some people really seem to hate it, in part because its satiric tone can come off as glib, and I agree with that to some extent. There are also just a lot of really little things in the movie that bug me like how it just sort of skips past what got Cheney into politics in the first place with a cut forward in time and I also hated a monolog delivered by Cheney towards the end which might have seemed interestingly provocative in another movie but which made no sense in the movie its attached to which overly contradicts everything that he’s saying. I also just flat out didn’t find the movie particularly funny despite sort of admiring some of the audacity on display. Certain parts of the movie do work, which combined with how interesting Bale’s performances was keep me from really hating the movie as much as some people do. That said, I do think that by and large the movie is something of a failure.
** out of Five
2018 was generally a pretty bad year for humanity, but it was a pretty good year for one fictional character: Spider-Man. The character was going strong coming off of his successful Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and also played a prominent role in this year’s Avengers: Infinity War. On top of that he had a hit video game come out for the Playstation 4, which was a huge seller and one of the most acclaimed superhero games since the end of the Batman: Arkham series. Hell, even the dude’s villains are now getting majorly successful movies made about them. With all that web-slinger content to go through I must say I wasn’t exactly doing much to anticipate Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an animated feature film that Sony was planning to release late in the year almost as an afterthought separate from all the other Spider-Man related releases they were cranking out. Was it based on some Saturday Morning cartoon I wasn’t familiar with? Was it going to be something that was strictly for kids? Was it going to be more like the dozens of animated movies that DC puts out for whoever it is buys those things? Well to my surprise it’s being treated as something more substantial than all those things, in fact among critics it’s become one of the more universally liked animated movies of the year and something I probably couldn’t just ignore.
This Spider-Man film is set in an alternate universe from the one we’re used to seeing Spider-Man in. In it Peter Parker (Chris Pine) is a blond guy who has been fighting the good fight as Spider-Man for many years and is pretty widely accepted as a superhero, but this film isn’t told from his perspective. Instead it’s told from the perspective of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a middle school student who’s recently been accepted to a top end charter school but who feels stifled by his parents’ expectations. One day his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) takes him to a hidden subway where he is (for reasons unexplained) bitten by a radioactive spider. Soon he begins to obtain Spider-Man like powers that he doesn’t know how to control, and he’ll need them because shortly afterward he stumbles upon a giant particle collider that The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) has built while Spider-Man is trying to take it down. Spider-Man does damage it but is injured in the process. He warns Morales that this collider could cause a full on apocalypse and gives Morales a USB drive that can be used to bring it down for good. Unfortunately Spider-Man is found by The Kingpin and unable to help, Morales watches as Spider-Man is killed. Morales escapes, but feels ill-equipped to finish what Spider-Man started, that is until he realizes that this collider has opened up some sort of inter-dimensional rift and he meets another alternate version of Spider-Man, and another, and another.
This highlight of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is almost certainly its screenplay by Phil Lord (of Lord and Miller fame) and Rodney Rothman. In it they do a pretty good job of doing a new take on Spider-Man that feels quite distinct from the many other iterations of the character without feeling like it was trying to tear those versions down in any way. The film also does a good job of having a rather sarcastic wit without constantly feeling more snarky and self-referential than it needed to. I especially liked the creation of Peter B. Parker, an alternate universe Spider-Man voiced by Jake Johnson, who appears to be a perfectly competent superhero despite sort of being a fuck-up whose personal life is a mess and who just sort of “wings it” while out on missions rather than meticulously planning everything. I love the way the film manages to pretty much mock this guy while still making him very clearly a hero in all the ways that count. The film also does a good job of getting kind of serious when it needs to and prioritizing Morales’ character arc over gags.
So there’s a very solid stand-alone Spider-Man story here to work with, but I found the way that it was executed to be a bit… all over the place. In particular I found the animation style they landed on to be quite the mixed bag. Now before I get too deep into this I do want to say that I’m glad the people making this did at least try to use a somewhat experimental animation style for this relatively high profile film. That kind risk taking is necessary and that kind of variety is necessary in the film landscape. That having been said, I think what mars the look of this film is that it kind of has a whole lot of ideas and never really settles on a specific set of them. It’s over-riding goal is seemingly to take on something of the look of a silver-age comic book but it also doesn’t want to go all the way and use traditional animation so it instead takes the form of a CGI animated film but one that uses cel-shading, kind of like a Telltale game. The result really doesn’t look that much like a vintage comic book to me so I’m not sure why they still bothered with certain filters to try and give it that four color look. Occasionally the film will use some overt comic book techniques like word bubbles and panel divides, but it never really commits to this and or consistently uses it as part of its film language.
On the positive side, the film does have its characters move in a way that feels unique and it also has a bit more of a sense of depth within the frame, and almost gives the illusion of the film being a work stop-motion at times, which is interesting. I will also say that the film does a very good job of blending in the divergent styles of some of the alternate universe Spider-people and making them all cohere on screen, which was probably an even harder task than it appeared given that a couple of the characters really take on the features of traditional animation in ways that most of the film doesn’t. On the less positive side, while this is still a movie that was made for $90 million dollars that’s still kind of low budget for a feature length animated movie like this (by comparison The Incredibles 2 cost more than twice as much), and at times that budget does show. Certain elements of the movie like the cityscapes and the backgrounds during a scene set in a forest seem to really use their stylization to conceal corners that are being cut and certain elements just look kind of unfinished. I must also say that for all of the film’s success in designing the alternate universe spider-people I think the film really dropped the ball in their designs for some of its villains. The Kingpin just looks silly with his insanely large bulk combined with a sort of hump on his back, when the Green Goblin is briefly present he looks like an indistinct snarling monster, The Prowler almost seems to be hard to see on screen at times, and their makeover of The Scorpion just looks plain ridiculous.
That’s not to say I dislike the movie because of any of this. Again, the writing in it is very strong and despite my misgivings the animation does have some things going for it. The movie is certainly a whole lot better than it needed to be given that it looked like something of a weird side-project by Sony Pictures to exploit the one franchise they have that still seems to be working for them. All that said I think I am a bit less into this movie than some people are, in part because I’m sort of part of a second wave of people who went to see it. Unlike the first round of critics who were blindsided by it, I was going into it with higher expectations because of the hype and that probably made its shortcomings stand out a little more to me.
***1/2 out of Five
Making yet another Rocky movie in 2015 certainly seemed like a crazy idea at the time, in no small part because I thought that trying to bring it back in 2006 was also kind of silly, and for that matter the decision to make the very first Rocky sequel back in 1979 was kind of suspect. And yet, the movie Creed pretty effectively proved me wrong. That spinoff about the son of Apollo Creed seeking out Rocky to be his trainer was a clear critical and financial hit and I think its success probably says less about how much life was still in the series than it does about what bringing in new talent can do to revitalize a franchise. That new talent was Ryan Coogler, a director who was plainly a better visual stylist than Sylvester Stallone and John G. Avildsen ever were but who did maintain an understanding of the series and why people loved it. There were limits to my personal enthusiasm for it, I thought it was a very solid movie that achieved what it set out to do very well, but I wasn’t one of the people claiming it was some kind of outrage when it wasn’t a Best Picture nominee. Still, the movie was a clear win and given that this franchise pretty much can’t be stopped it seemed inevitable that it would keep on going from there. Unfortunately for the sequel, Ryan Coogler was too busy making Black Panther and generally taking over Hollywood to direct the sequel, so a relatively untested young filmmaker named Steven Caple Jr. has taken his place. Can he continue to elevate the franchise with Creed II?
This sequel begins a few years after Creed and in that time Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has come into his own as a fighter and as the film is opening he’s winning a championship fight bout without too much trouble against a complacent champion who’s past his prime. After the fight he proposes to Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson) and the two begin planning for their future. However, on the other side of the world in the Ukraine another fighter named Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) has been training with his father Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the same Ivan Drago who killed Apollo Creed in the ring in Rocky IV, and they have been waiting for Adonis to become the champion so they can challenge him and use the likelihood that he would accept such a fight in order to find their way into the boxing spotlight. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who feels a great deal of guilt over what happened to Apollo in that fight thirty years earlier, believes that accepting this fight would be a major mistake and that stirring up this old emotions is not worth whatever sense of family redemption this fight would offer. Adonis, however, does not heed this advice and accepts the fight.
When I first heard that they were planning to incorporate Ivan Drago’s son into this sequel I thought it was a terrible idea, in part because Rocky IV is a very stupid movie rooted in empty Cold War era patriotism and going out of its way to acknowledge its existence within the series continuity seemed like trouble. To the movies credit they do manage to make the Dragos feel relatively grounded and do a pretty good job of just ignoring the part where that movie implied that Rocky singlehandedly brought down the Soviet Union through his inspiring performance in the ring. That said, its occasional attempts to humanize the Dragos and make them into characters unto themselves do fall flat for the most part. The film tries to establish that the two of them have a well-earned chip on their shoulder because of the way Ivan was abandoned by the Soviet propaganda machine after his loss to Rocky, but they depict this in rather broad ways and I kind of hated a device they used involving Drago’s ex-wife. It also doesn’t help that Dolph Lundgren has proven to be a much less interesting and resilient actor than Sylvester Stallone and that the dude they found to play Viktor was an athlete chosen for his physical prowess rather than his acting abilities.
Despite all the invocations of Rocky IV, the film actually more closely follows the formula of Rocky III. After Creed accepts the fight and tries to train without Rocky the big fight begins before we’re even at the half-way point and you’d pretty much have to be an idiot not to guess that this first fight isn’t going to go very well for Adonis. So, much like when Rocky went up against Clubber Lang before him Adonis finds himself as the pampered champion underestimating his foe and having to find a way to regain the eye of the tiger after an embarrassing defeat. That is generally the problem with this movie, it’s undeniably formulaic and feels like a retread. Of course the first Creed also mirrored a lot of stuff from the original Rocky but it felt like it was adding a bit more of its own flavor, in part because Adonis Creed felt like more of a distinct character in that film. Here Adonis straight up just feels like nothing more than a younger and slightly more articulate Rocky Balboa. The film does rub up against a slightly original idea of having Rocky question whether Adonis really “needs” to fight this guy and Adonis does seem to be swayed by this and mature out of all this toxic masculinity trap… but this is a Rocky movie so we can’t actually have our hero back down from a final fight so they just sort of throw all that out at a certain point and go along with the formula.
All that having been said the boxing scenes kind of save the movie. Actually there’s plenty to criticize there as well. Michael B. Jordan looks way more like a light heavyweight (the weight class he was fighting in in the first movie) than a heavyweight and I have my doubts about any state athletics commissions allowing a fight between him and the plainly much larger Drago. Also things happen in the ring which are just kind of nuts (the final round in particular has to be the longest three minutes in temporal history) and nothing is as strong as the fights from the first Creed, but despite all that the film’s close up and impactful pugilism is still pretty enjoyable. That’s the thing about this movie, it kind of works in spite of itself. I maintain that it feels way more like the old Rocky sequels than Creed (something that probably has a lot to do with that fact that Stallone is once again writing), but… as dumb as those movies got most of them were kind of fun in spite of themselves as well. Still, I don’t have a very good feeling about this series going forward. I’m sure there will be a third film but I do hope they don’t get it in their heads to make five Creed movies like they did five (well, six) Rocky movies and that they heed this film’s lessons about avoiding the mistakes of the past more than Adonis does.
*** out of Five