End-of-Year Movies: A Political Parody and a Harlem Heartbreaker

At the Movies - January 2019

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Christian Bale (left) and Amy Adams star as Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne in a tense moment from “Vice.” Photo Credit: Matt Kennedy, Annapurna Pictures; ©2018, all rights reserved.

Vice
Adam McKay is a smart comedy writer and director who, in 2015, left his comfort zone to adapt the Michael Lewis bestseller “The Big Short,” coming up with a superb comedy-drama through ingenuity, a risk-taking script, and great casting. His effort received five Oscar nominations and a statuette for Best Adapted Screenplay. Now, McKay takes on a subject perhaps as difficult: “Vice,” a biopic about an hermetic character: Dick Cheney (the film is rated “R” and runs 132 minutes).

“Vice” traces Cheney’s life as a 22-year-old youth, driving while drunk and going nowhere, to the power behind the throne of the last Bush presidency. An early scene quickly throws us into the turmoil of 9/11, with Cheney being whisked away by Secret Service agents to a safe location. The film returns to that fearful day and the Veep’s commandeering of the situation. Running alongside these flash forwards, we observe a restive chronology of Cheney’s political life, narrated by an “unconventional narrator “(Jesse Plemons) whose relationship to Cheney is unknown until a last big reveal.

Cheney’s chronicle begins with a dressing down from his then girlfriend, Lynne (Amy Adams), who threatens to leave him if he doesn’t shape up. Through her balanced cajolery and reassurance, Cheney slides into Republican politics, from staff positions at the White House–aided by mentor Don Rumsfeld (Steve Carell)–through a Congressional career, to a stint as Secretary of Defense under Bush 41, then to his triumph as Vice President for Bush 43.

Through it all, the character of Cheney evolves from naïve simp to cagey pro to finally embody that near satanic figure of hunched posture, canny visage, and monotonic whisper that delivered some of the most terrifying euphemisms of our age. The transformation of the “Vice” is fascinating to watch, with Christian Bale (and a make-up team headed by Greg Cannon) more than up to the task. That transformation varies from a young “Cheney,” who just looks like Bale, to a crafty impersonation of the man, then, ultimately, into a most convincing embodiment of Cheney.

Amy Adams shines as Lynne Cheney, a 1950’s girl willing to take a back seat to her hubbie but ever iron-spined in matching Dick’s instincts to her ambition (one of the cleverer segments that McKay uses is a surreal pillow talk between the couple where they trade verses from “Macbeth”). Adams convinces as a honeyed promotor and ever-ready helpmate of Cheney, not the complete power-behind-the throne but often the catalyst for a rise in the family’s fortunes.

Less effective are major featured roles played by Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell. Carell plays Rumsfeld too crass and ham-handed (beside the real controlled figure), seeming to do variations on his “The Office” TV personage rather than plumbing the nature of the politician (an exception is an intimate phone call with Cheney late in the picture, a scene that personifies treachery). Rockwell may be having fun at “W’s” expense, but I didn’t buy him as Bush II. He comes off as a witless Texas stereotype, way dumber than his real-life counterpart. Also, he doesn’t look much like the man. One among many portrayals of real people in “Vice” that stands out is Don McManus as Cheney’s lawyer, David Addington, who embodies the character’s devilish machinations while looking strikingly like the real thing.

Thinking of other political satires, “Vice” reminds me most of Oliver Stone’s “W” (2008), another movie that exposes the flaws of an official through ridicule and exaggeration. This depiction is as damning as Stone’s, but “Vice” softens Cheney’s edges with many scenes of genuine family life and real domestic crises (Cheney’s health problems, for example). McKay also, as he did with “The Big Short,” mingles his narrative with funky asides, such as a surprise false ending to the film and a studied essay on the “unitary presidency theory.”

Location note: While much of “Vice” happens in Washington, DC, little is made of real District locations (most of the film was shot in California). The Cheney character is shown briefly in sequences at the Grant Memorial and at the entrance to L’Enfant Plaza, and there are several standard stock images: down 16th Street NW, on the South Lawn of the White House, and, as ever, the Capitol.

Stephan James (left) as Fonny and Kiki Layne as Tish appear in “If Beale Street Could Talk. Photo Credit: Tatum Magnus, Annapurna Pictures; ©2018, all rights reserved.

If Beale Street Could Talk
This film version of James Baldwin’s fifth novel, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, is a splendid follow-up to Jenkins Academy-Award-winning ”Moonlight” (2016), working out with sympathy and spirit the story of young love thwarted yet finally redeemed. It’s a wonder that it has not been filmed before (the film, released at Christmas, is rated “R” and runs 117 minutes).

The setting is 1970’s Harlem and features 22-year-old aspiring sculptor Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) and 19-year-old Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne), friends since childhood who are engaged and hope to settle on Beale Street. Their hopeful lives are turned upside down when Fonny is falsely accused of rape by a Puerto Rican woman (Emily Ross), in a case trumped-up by a resentful white policeman, Officer Bell (Ed Skrein).

Fonny is well aware of the trials of prison time from his friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) who has just been released. Still, he is jailed and awaiting trial when Tish learns that she is pregnant. Tish’s family, led by her steadfast mother Sharon (Regina Hall), is greatly concerned for her and her fiancé, while Fonny’s family is either indifferent to him or thinks him guilty. Sharon helps find a lawyer to defend Fonny, hoping to find evidence to free him before the baby is born. Sharon persists in the case by tracking down the accuser in Puerto Rico but is unable to get her to recant. The couple’s love remains ardent but their future uncertain.

As he did in “Moonlight,” Jenkins has again composed an intricate, lyrical cinematic poem of African-American life, taking inspiration from Baldwin’s novel. To help achieve his effects, he has relied again on two collaborators from his earlier triumph, cinematographer James Laxton and musical director Nicholas Britell. Both Laxton’s glowing and vibrant camerawork and Laxton’s sinuous and period-proper score add dimension to the film, which Jenkins directs with a graceful and honest touch,

The cast, a diverse ensemble, is stellar, led by the two leads. James as Fonny exudes innate intelligence and wounded pathos. Layne, who has more to do since she is the story’s narrator, blossoms with earnest love and total commitment to her man. It is Regina King as Sharon, however, who commands the movie. King, a busy actress, has not had enough roles where she has been able to shine, but she sparkles here, as a woman of powerful empathy and strength.

 

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.