VICE (2018, Adam McKay)
Funny and depressing in equal measure, VICE is McKay’s entertaining but less successful follow-up to THE BIG SHORT (and, by extension, THE OTHER GUYS) in his quest to destroy-by-satire the powerful white capitalists eroding the country bit by bit. There’s a healthy amount of Trump rage here too, with Lynne Cheney’s stump speech (while her husband is laid up with his first of five heart attacks) essentially promising to drain the swamp and eliminate the immigrants. (McKay also clumsily cuts in Reagan’s first use of “Make America great again” to make the obvious connection). He keeps the tone caustically funny and ups the ante on the Margot-Robbie-in-the-bathtub style info-dumps, which are hit and miss but almost always viscerally energetic in a way that builds momentum and cooks up fury.
And in the first half, Cheney is developed as a shockingly three-dimensional monster, an oxymoron of a character that has you understanding his humanity while decrying his demonic ascent — and that’s all thanks to Bale’s sensational work. Like Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn before him, Bale’s Cheney is one of those biopic turns that so far exceeds the (albeit incredibly accurate) mimicry that marks a superficial SNL impersonation and turns into a real-live performance of depth, movement, and growth (though in this case rather than a Denzel-in-MALCOLM X self-actualization, his heart literally blackens as he moves further towards rapacious ghoul). Adams does equally astute work as well, further separating Bale and herself from the cosmetic, softball impressions Steve Carell (Rummy) and Sam Rockwell (Dubya) are up to.
In the final third, however, the movie loses steam as its focus gets away from Cheney’s driving motivation (that began when Rumsfeld laughed when he questioned what the party “believes”) and becomes a this-happened-then-this-happened rehashing of the 9/11-WMDs-Iraq-Saddam fiasco of the Bush presidency. McKay is preaching more to the choir than ever in this section, right when we don’t need reminders — we need a narrative. Still, he ends his screed with two uppercuts: a fourth-wall-breaking soliloquy that implicates the audience, then a misanthropic mid-credits assault bluntly separating American masses into two equally reprehensible groups: MAGA-types attacking The Libs, and head-in-the-sand sheep escaping into pop culture dreck. His characterization is simplistic and reductive, but I can’t help but sympathize with his lack of answers or positivity, because when it feels like the bad guys won (or, more accurately, we are the bad guys now), why bother pretending there’s a silver lining?
THE MULE (2018, Clint Eastwood)
A fine companion piece to David Lowery’s THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN, Clint Eastwood’s THE MULE is another swan song for an American icon of the ’60s and ’70s, reckoning with a life of chasing a satisfaction just out of reach. (Both films even contain the hero’s love interest laughing when he tells her of his criminal behavior; a HEAT-style scene midway of cop and crook shooting the shit in a diner; and a climactic chase where the law closes down on the hero driving alone in his car through the American heartland).
In Lowery’s film, the themes were concerning the passage of time, aging, and the existentialist concerns of defining one’s identity through action. Eastwood, however, is dwelling on something more socio-political. Ever the Libertarian, Clint has made a paean to the virtues of personal accountability, and centered his own character’s arc around the ultimate acceptance of responsibility. Add to that a series of scenes that underscore the inescapable burden of having to answer to a boss no matter who you are (an informant, a DEA agent, a station chief, a henchman, etc.), and you’ve got a strong argument for Rand Paulism. Earl Stone in this movie is his own man, free from the shackles of big government and big corporations, yet he must still tackle the consequences of a crumbling economy that threaten both his hobby and his family. (Speaking of his family, there’s more than a little autobiography here: casting his daughter as his daughter is one thing, but Clint is a guy with at least 8 kids by 6 women, two of whom were his wives — it’s not surprising to see him open up to Dianne Wiest’s character like this, or to have two separate threesome scenes).
All of that stuff is perfectly fine — agree or disagree with his politics, it’s an argument well explored and intelligently supported; plus, Eastwood is having a blast playing Earl. It’s a real performance, not just an 88 year-old coot shuffling through his dialogue. But the DEA scenes feel far more rote and obligatory — little narrative function is achieved by spending so much time with the pursuit, so we’re left only to contemplate its meaning on a thematic level. Some of the superfluous material serves to explore identity politics — how Earl engages with blacks and Latinos, how police regard Hispanics, and how a Filipino objects to being called a Mexican. And while most of this is on the money, I’m not sure we needed the detour of the Latino motorist pulled over and freaking out about the scenario: it adds nothing to the story and thus feels the most didactic and self-indulgent. However, there’s a key detail that shows the passing of the torch from an elderly white movie star to a young Hispanic role player: throughout his career, Clint was the guy wearing the cowboy hat. In this scene, it’s that motorist, and it’s “statistically the five most dangerous minutes” of his life.
THE FAVOURITE (2018, Yorgos Lanthimos)
Fast-paced, scabrous, and devilishly irreverent, this is not the stuffy Anglophilic period piece you expect to see around Oscar-bait time. It’s an acidic sour candy you suck on for two hours then feel a little lacking in nutrients. Not to say Lanthimos’s hired-gun follow-up to the more personally substantial THE LOBSTER and KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (his breakthrough features following smaller Greek efforts like DOGTOOTH and ALPS) isn’t rich in quality — it has all-star skill to spare in every department from production design and cinematography to the stellar cast — but the only drawback is that when it’s over, you feel like it’s over. None of the noise echoes past the two hours you spend in its spell.
But oh, that cast. Emma Stone plays against type deliciously, at first earning your sympathies, then mocking your naiveté. Olivia Colman is fierce from the opening shot, where she stands firm and regal until the crown is removed from her head, at which point she almost collapses from the literal and metaphorical weight removed. And Nicholas Hoult – unrecognizable from his days as the adorable moppet from ABOUT A BOY (or even the wan sex object from A SINGLE MAN) – is having a blast as an obnoxious, sneering Jared Kushner-type.
What develops in this darkly comedic retelling of Queen Anne’s real-life relationships with Lady Sarah Marlborough and Abigail is a caustic reminder that in governments structured around dictatorships or aristocracies, everything from taxes to wars can be decided upon (and inflicted upon the masses) based on the whims of a jealous lover or a betrayed, scorned victim. The things that make humans malicious actors, beholden to the vagaries of revenge, love, and greed, are the same things that can make or ruin a country.