Vice (2018)

Adam McKay’s Vice opens with a disclaimer: The following is a true story, but note that it’s based on an infamously secretive man, former Vice President Dick Cheney. Working with limited information, “we did our f***ing best.”

This half-assed attitude sets a surprisingly consistent tone throughout the whole film. Vice feels like a movie where they tried, but not very hard. Early on, Cheney (Christian Bale) as a young upstart White House intern falls under the wing of then-economic adviser Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). Rumsfeld explains the rules of engagement to Cheney and how to navigate the river rapids of D.C. politics, told with a devilish glee and cynicism. Cheney asks, “What do we believe?” which cracks up Rumsfeld. “What do we believe.. that’s a good one!” he howls with laughter.

Writer-director Adam McKay goes out on a limb that Rumsfeld, and the political machine he’s a cog in, has no beliefs, and I guess we’re supposed to go along with that. Love him or hate him, he’s a power-hungry monster with no driving force beyond that. Even Cheney, as he rises in second-place prominence as the right-hand man of countless Republican figures, speaks only of power and how to best wield it. But power for what exactly?

The script strips these figures, despicable as they may be, of any depth or content to unpack and explore, which begs the question of why McKay made a film about them at all. If he’s not going to make an effort to understand (or at least explain) them, it’s unclear why he, and we, are undergoing a two-hour film rolling through such vacuousness.

I checked out of this live-action cartoon pretty early on, but couldn’t stop giggling as some of the sinister plot points unfolded: Cheney placing friends and colleagues throughout the executive branch, a PR firm researching and executing talking points that best resonate with the electorate, all while sinister music warns us of the impending doom.

The Bush-Cheney administration was apparently the first ever to exercise these tactics, and I wonder if McKay knows that subsequent administrations did the same. Another mystery is the script’s frequent bubbling up of the unitary executive theory: the idea that the president has sole power to control the executive branch, without any checks to stop him/her. Yes, this is a theory, but it’s all pinned as starting with Nixon, nor does McKay acknowledge another (better-known?) theory called the Imperial Presidency, which argues that as early as Lincoln, and certainly ramping up with Teddy Roosevelt, that the power of the executive has gradually increased throughout history, and those powers have never gone back to the legislature or other branches of government.

I don’t mean to sound hung up on this, but Vice overall is a pretty surface-level take on a very complicated, though understandably contentious figure. If we’re supposed to engage with a very negative telling of a much-hated politician, they should at least have made a better effort to contextualize his place in history, or make an effort to unpack what makes him tick beyond “power.” But I guess they tried their f***ing best.

2019 Oscar Nominations

Live-blogging the nominees for the 91st Academy Awards:

  • Best Picture
    • Black Panther
    • BlacKkKlansman
    • Bohemian Rhapsody
    • The Favourite
    • Green Book
    • Roma
    • A Star is Born
    • Vice
    • Snubs: If Beale Street Could Talk, Mary Poppins Returns
    • Surprise: Vice, which has been polarizing – hard to picture it had enough #1 votes to make it in here.
  • Best Director
    • Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)
    • Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War)
    • Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite)
    • Alfonso Cuaron (Roma)
    • Adam McKay (Vice)
    • Snub: Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born)
  • Best Actor
    • Christian Bale (Vice)
    • Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born)
    • Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate)
    • Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
    • Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)
    • Snub: John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman)
    • Surprise: Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate)
  • Best Actress
    • Yalitza Aparicio (Roma)
    • Glenn Close (The Wife)
    • Olivia Colman (The Favourite)
    • Lady Gaga (A Star is Born)
    • Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
    • Snub: Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins Returns). I was worried other aspects of the film would be taken for granted for how spot-on they embody the spirit of the original, and unfortunately this applied to its star as well, whose impeccable and lively portrayal of the superhero nanny deserves to be in the mix.
  • Best Supporting Actor
    • Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
    • Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman)
    • Sam Elliott (A Star is Born)
    • Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
    • Sam Rockwell (Vice)
    • Snub: Timothee Chalamet (Beautiful Boy)
  • Best Supporting Actress
    • Amy Adams (Vice)
    • Marina de Tavira (Roma)
    • Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
    • Emma Stone (The Favourite)
    • Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)
    • Surprise: Marina de Tavira (Roma)
  • Best Original Screenplay
    • The Favourite
    • First Reformed
    • Green Book
    • Roma
    • Vice
    • Surprise: First Reformed, which has been a hit critically but hadn’t made a big awards splash yet.
  • Best Adapted Screenplay
    • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
    • BlacKkKlansman
    • Can You Ever Forgive Me?
    • If Beale Street Could Talk
    • A Star is Born
    • Surprise: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which hasn’t come up much in the awards conversation this year – great to see it recognized in a major category.
  • Best Animated Feature Film
    • Incredibles 2
    • Isle of Dogs
    • Mirai
    • Ralph Breaks the Internet
    • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
  • Best Foreign Language Film
    • Capernaum
    • Cold War
    • Never Look Away
    • Roma
    • Shoplifters
  • Best Documentary – Feature
    • Free Solo
    • Hale County This Morning, This Evening
    • Minding the Gap
    • Of Fathers and Sons
    • RBG
    • Snubs: Three Identical Strangers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
  • Best Documentary – Short Subject
    • Black Sheep
    • End Game
    • Lifeboat
    • A Night at the Garden
    • Period. End of Sentence.
  • Best Live Action Short Film
    • Detainment
    • Fauve
    • Marguerite
    • Mother
    • Skin
  • Best Animated Short Film
    • Animal Behaviour
    • Bao
    • Late Afternoon
    • One Small Step
    • Weekends
  • Best Original Score
    • Black Panther
    • BlacKkKlansman
    • If Beale Street Could Talk
    • Isle of Dogs
    • Mary Poppins Returns
  • Best Original Song
    • “All the Stars” (Black Panther)
    • “I’ll Fight” (RBG)
    • “The Place Where Lost Things Go” (Mary Poppins Returns)
    • “Shallow” (A Star is Born)
    • “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs)
  • Best Sound Editing
    • Black Panther
    • Bohemian Rhapsody
    • First Man
    • A Quiet Place
    • Roma
  • Best Sound Mixing
    • Black Panther
    • Bohemian Rhapsody
    • First Man
    • Roma
    • A Star is Born
  • Best Production Design
    • Black Panther
    • The Favourite
    • First Man
    • Mary Poppins Returns
    • Roma
  • Best Cinematography
    • Cold War
    • The Favourite
    • Never Look Away
    • Roma
    • A Star is Born
    • Surprise: Never Look Away, which also hasn’t been part of the awards buzz machine.
  • Best Makeup and Hairstyling
    • Border
    • Mary Queen of Scots
    • Vice
  • Best Costume Design
    • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
    • Black Panther
    • The Favourite
    • Mary Poppins Returns
    • Mary Queen of Scots
  • Best Film Editing
    • BlacKkKlansman
    • Bohemian Rhapsody
    • The Favourite
    • Green Book
    • Vice
    • Snubs: RomaA Star is Born
    • Surprises: Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice. The Best Picture winner almost always comes out of this category, so it’s surprising (and not looking good) that two of the front-runners didn’t make it in here.
  • Best Visual Effects
    • Avengers: Infinity War
    • Christopher Robin
    • First Man
    • Ready Player One
    • Solo: A Star Wars Story
    • Snub: Mary Poppins Returns, for its dazzling blend of animation with live-action plus practical effects over CGI.
    • Surprises: Christopher Robin and Solo: A Star Wars Story, since these movies weren’t super critically acclaimed, but it’s neat to see the Academy still recognize the visual achievements.

What movies are you rooting for? Who was shut out this year? Reply below in the comments!

Two Dantes: The Marigold Bridge Between Coco and the Inferno

Death is one of the great mysteries of life. Faiths, cultures, and individuals around the world, across all time, have pondered and theorized about what awaits beyond our final breath. This challenging, mystifying concept is not only addressed, but also actively engaged with through Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Inferno and the Lee Unkich film Coco, both of which ease their audiences into the other realm through a narrative guide, bringing the hero from the mortal world into the hitherto unknown.

In the Inferno, Dante (as the narrator) is guided through Hell by the ancient poet Virgil. The appearance of three beasts forces Dante, a mortal, into a “lower place,” where he encounters the spirit of Virgil, who accompanies him through the underworld as his guide. The pair go through all the circles of hell, bearing witness to eternal punishment of sins from the least offensive to the most despicable. Compared to Virgil, who knows Hell well and has seen it all before, Dante is initially sympathetic and is filled with anguish for what he sees, but as they journey on, he comes to understand the sense of order and just punishment taking place, and feels no sorrow for the sinners he encounters. Dante’s Inferno, as a work, is also notable for the concept that the actions taken in one’s mortal life are proportional to what awaits in the next world. Dante is an outsider at first, but comes to know and accept the fantastical world he encounters.

f2db8ad41a
Dante and Virgil.

In Unkrich’s film Coco, the role of Dante is flipped to that of guide, driving the action and pulling the protagonist through the different spaces of the afterlife. It is Dante who sets the plot into motion; he inspires Miguel to “seize [his] moment” when he helps himself to some mole from the Rivera family ofrenda, inadvertently knocking down the photo of Rivera family matriarch Mama Imelda, which triggers the living Mama Coco’s memory of her father (allegedly famed musician Ernesto de la Cruz), which Miguel takes as a sign to become a musician himself, and claim his great-great-grandfather’s guitar. The resulting magic causes Miguel to find himself transported to the realm of the dead, where it is Dante who pulls him from place to place, such as bringing together Miguel and Héctor, who also takes on the role of guide to Miguel. Between both worlds, living and dead, Dante is the alebrije spirit guide accompanying Miguel to pursue his destiny.

coco1-facebookjumbo
Crossing the marigold bridge.

Both visions of the underworld reflect what took place prior to the afterlife. Dante’s Inferno inflicts punishment proportional to the sins committed on earth, from minor offenses to more serious, sacrilegious crimes. The nine circles of hell are cleanly divided to organize sinners to the right spheres they belong to. There is also a clearly defined order to the Land of the Dead in Coco, where one’s well-being in the afterlife is impacted by the living and the relationships fostered in the mortal life. The muertos bring back food, gifts, and other material objects from the world of the living, provided their loved ones dedicate any for them; this of course is dependent on how the living feel about the dead in question, and whether theirs is a memory worth honoring. Héctor finds himself coming short in this structure, with few belongings to his name and his memory fading fast from those still alive. The choices he made in life, for better or worse, impact the death that awaits him.

A humorous early moment in Coco features Mama Elena, Miguel’s grandmother, shooing away Dante and trying to teach her grandson a lesson: “Never name a street dog. They’ll follow you forever.” The Dante of the Inferno is certainly a follower, clinging to Virgil as they journey through Hell, while the Dante dog she throws her chancla (sandal) at turns out to be the guide to Miguel’s follower. In some ways, Coco could be a 21st century take on the Inferno; in both, the sins and actions taken in life have consequences that last well beyond the grave, but the emphasis in Coco are the implications for the family, beyond the individual. Dante’s Inferno paints a picture of the underworld full of miserable lost souls, without regard or understanding of others around them. What is committed in life is one’s own business, and whether or not someone ends up at the same place as a loved one is hardly addressed. In Coco‘s Land of the Dead, family is everything, and the greatest punishment over anything is an existence without family.

Both are fascinating texts, each with so much to offer and provoke around what comes after this life. As much as they are works to ease us into these unknown worlds through concrete, tangible means, they also reflect the values and priorities of the author guides who take us there.

Love, 2018

2018 may be the year studios caught up with indie filmmakers.

We saw the first major studio film featuring an LGBT protagonist as the lead in Love, Simon. The popcorn-friendly MCU brought themes of structural inequality and national guilt to the masses in the global phenomenon Black Panther. Big budget sci-fi went existential horror with Annihilation.

And best of all, these were great movies. In the past few years, it felt like the balance of quality had tipped largely to the independent side (where, to be sure, filmmakers often have a larger degree of creative freedom) but these gutsier, more artistic sensibilities made their way into the studio system as the big players took “risks” on inclusion, social awareness, and complicated themes, and managed to turn out some terrific films.

filmstrucklogo
“When the sun goes down and the band won’t play, I’ll always remember us this way.”

As much as I’ve enjoyed my time in movie theaters this year, I’m a little sad why I have more time to go there – 2018 also saw the end of FilmStruck, the (now, apparently) too-good-to-be-true streaming service offered by the Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies. It was a tremendous digital cinema resource, enabling me to plow through many of the Italian films from Criterion (a personal goal of mine) as well as explore their proactive curation of films. I particularly enjoyed their selections for June 2018 (LGBTQ Pride Month), and discovered some great titles I hadn’t seen like The Watermelon Woman, The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant, and introduced me to the wacky world of Derek Jarman. It was a great product while it lasted, and I look forward to the return of the Criterion Channel soon. If it’s anything like FilmStruck was, there’s a lot to look forward to!

Anyway, without further ado, here’s a look back at my 2018 in film:

  • 212 movies seen (0.58 per day, up from last year’s run rate of 0.52 per day)
  • First movie seen: The Big Sick (2017)
  • Last movie seen: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

TOP 10 LIST:

  1. A Star is Born – It’s funny that a movie concerning a veteran rocker and a rising pop singer is less about fame and celebrity than it is about love. I saw it three times in seven days, and each time was fully transported and engrossed in this intimate epic. No other movie this year followed the open road of love, in all its beauty and ugliness, quite as poignantly as this one.
  2. Love, SimonLove, Simon is not showy, flashy, or attention-grabbing. It is a well-crafted, heartfelt high school comedy that is extraordinary in its ordinariness. Weepy coming-out movies are a dime a dozen, but a quality teen studio movie featuring a gay lead is literally a “first” in 2018. Long after its trailblazing status is an asterisk in history, Love, Simon will continue to be a warm, reassuring movie to visit again and again.
    StFelix-Love-Simon-1
  3. Avengers: Infinity War – It may be surprising to place this above another MCU entry (which I also love), but Infinity War truly hit all the right notes for me, as both a stand-alone film and elevating established  MCU heroes to their highest stakes and best moments to date. I’m moved to tears by the sacrifices by the Guardians of the Galaxy, feel the lightning adrenaline of Thor brandishing his shiny new ax, and am horrified by the gut-punch ending. This was a massive movie with dozens of stars and sky-high expectations, and they still pulled it off.
  4. Annihilation – I ended up in this cerebral sci-fi as the “plan B” movie of the night, and I’m so glad I did. Possibly the scariest movie of the year, this wholly unsettling journey pits a team of soldiers against alien elements in a battle against time and an unknowable enemy. Alex Garland’s latest is haunting and unforgettable.Annihilation-Movie-2018-Extended-Tv-Spot-Natalie-Portman
  5. Incredibles 2 – Our favorite superhero family is back, in all their mid-century modern glory. The plot and new characters are twisty and occasionally hard to follow, but the ride is a ton of fun and Brad Bird’s intelligent script is endlessly entertaining and quotable. “Done properly, parenting can be a heroic act.”
  6. Black Panther – This cultural phenomenon is possibly the most surprising, though deserving, hit of the year. Its uncomfortable themes of imperialist guilt and the obligations of those more fortunate are captured powerfully by Michael B. Jordan’s ruthless Killmonger, a villain both tragic and despicable. What’s also striking is how comparatively little T’Challa / Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) himself is in it, compared to the impact by Killmonger and the delightful leading ladies of Wakanda: Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira, who also steals her scenes in Infinity War), and Shuri (Leticia Wright).
    null
  7. Hereditary – Another spooky favorite, this (also genuinely horrifying) pick crawls under your skin, lays eggs, and tears you open when you least expect it. Toni Colette is deservedly earning praise for her knockout performance, and Alex Wolff is also noteworthy for his portrayal of her troubled son in this demented family drama.
  8. Mary Poppins Returns – This delightful musical is one of those films where every element, from art direction, costume design, music, all the way to acting and performance, come together so harmoniously it’s easy to take for granted. Arguably more than the original, Mary Poppins Returns sets a clear through-line and each segment cleanly follows that trajectory, delivering memorable moments every step of the way. The finale is a warm reminder of just how magical the movies can be.
  9. Suspiria – The third arthouse horror on the list (can you tell I’m a genre guy?), Suspiria is a big, gutsy, bloody bite into an iconic classic, but spits out an entirely new demon entirely. For its entire two-and-a-half-hour runtime, director Luca Guadagnino casts an unsettling, though surprisingly moving, spell with themes of motherhood, survivor’s guilt, and forgiveness all while trapping us in a Berlin dance academy run by witches. It’s insane on paper, it’s insane to watch, and it’s one of the year’s best.suspiria-dakota-e1538244414570
  10. The Nun – This feels a little goofy to include, but I’ve made my list and checked it twice, and can’t deny how much fun this fifth (!) Conjuring movie is. It’s not particularly scary, but it’s delightfully atmospheric, with more fog, candles, and shadows than you’ll know what to do with. Taissa Farmiga also shines playing against type as a likable character.

Note: There’s a handful of 2018 films still on my watch list, including Roma, Eighth Grade, Green Book, and Vice.

  • Notable Discoveries in 2018:
    • Forty Guns
    • The Gospel According to St. Matthew
    • The Lodger
    • A Matter of Life and Death
    • Maurice
    • Paisan
    • Seduced and Abandoned
    • The Seventh Seal
    • The Young Girls of Rochefort
    • Women in Love
young_girls_of_rochefort_master__detail_carousel
The Young Girls of Rochefort are also Women in Love!
  • MOST-WATCHED:
    • Coco (4x)
    • Love, Simon (4x)
    • Call Me By Your Name (3x)
    • A Star is Born (2018) (3x)

What were your favorite films & discoveries from 2018? Any special movie memories? Reply below in the comments!