Tag: Jesse Plemons

The Power of the Dog (2021)

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Benedict Cumberbatch rules his ranch with an iron fist in Jane Campion’s extraordinary The Power of the Dog

Director: Jane Campion

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Phil Burbank), Kirsten Dunst (Rose Gordon), Jesse Plemons (George Burbank), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Peter Gordon), Thomasin McKenzie (Lola), Genevieve Lemon (Mrs Lewis), Keith Carradine (Governor Edward), Frances Conroy (Old Lady), Peter Carroll (Old Gent)

At one point in The Power of the Dog, Phil Burbank, monstrously domineering Montana Rancher, stares out at his beloved hills. Where others see only rocks and peaks, Phil sees how (like a cloud) they form themselves into looking like a howling dog. Seeing things others do not is something Phil prides himself on. It’s also something The Power of the Dog excels out: it’s a continually genre- and tone-shifting film that starts as a gothic, du Maurier-like dance among the plains and ends as something so radically different, with such unexpected character shifts and revelations, you’ll be desperate to go back and watch it again and see if you can see the image of a dog among its rocks.

In Montana in 1925, two brothers run a ranch. George (Jesse Plemons) is polite, formal and quiet, seemingly under the thumb of his aggressively macho, bullying brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Phil is fully “hands-on” on the ranch, priding himself on being able to perform every task, from rope weaving to bull skinning, all of which he learned from his deceased mentor “Bronco” Henry. Things change though when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst). Phil takes an immediate dislike to Rose, engaging into a campaign of psychological bullying that drives Rose to drink. However, at the same time a strange bond develops between Phil and Rose’s student son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) – is Phil’s interest in the boy part of a campaign to destroy Rose or are there other forces at work?

Campion’s film (her first in over ten years) is a fascinating series of narrative turns and genre shifts. It opens like a gothic Western. The ranch is a huge, isolated house surrounded by rolling fields and its own rules. Phil is an awe-inspiring, still-living Rebecca with Rose a Second Mrs de Winter having to share a bathroom with the perfect first wife. The psychological war Phil launches against Rose, like a hyper-masculine Mrs Danvers, seems at first to be heading towards a plot where we will see a vulnerable woman either crushed or fighting back. Then Campion shifts gears with incredible professional ease; the kaleidoscope shifts and suddenly our perceptions change along with the film’s genre, which becomes something strikingly different.

This all revolves around the character of Phil. Excellently played (way against type) by Benedict Cumberbatch, in a hugely complex performance, Phil at first seems an obvious character. A bully and alpha male who mocks George as “Fatso”, hurls homophobic slurs at Rose’s sensitive, artistic son and would-be doctor Pete, and treats his duties with such masculine reverence that the idea of wearing gloves to skin a cow or washing the dirt of his labour from him is anathema.

But look at Phil another way and you see his vulnerability. The opening scenes play as a torrent of abuse to George. But look again and you see this is a man desperately trying multiple angles to clumsily engage his brother in joint reminiscences. His emotional dependence on George is so great that they still share a single bedroom in their giant house (and even a bed in a guest house, like Morecambe and Wise) and he weeps on their first night apart. Despite his brutish appearance, his conversation is littered with classical and literary allusions (we discover later he is a Yale Classics graduate). His life is devoid of emotional and physical contact and he maintains a hidden retreat in the woods, a private den the only place we see him relax.

He’s a man clinging desperately to the past. At first it feels like he has never grown up, that he is still a boy at heart. But Campion slowly reveals his emotional bonds to his deceased mentor Bronco (whom he refers to almost constantly in conversation) to be far deeper and more complex than first anticipated. He treats Bronco’s remaining belongings with reverence, maintaining a shrine to him in the barn and cleaning his saddle with more tenderness and care than he feels able to show any human being. The depths of this relationship are crucial to understanding Phil’s character and the emotional barriers he has constructed. His gruff aggression hides a deep isolation and loneliness, feelings Campion explores with profound empathy in the film’s second half.

That doesn’t change the monstrousness of the bullying Phil enacts on Rose. Played with fragile timidity by Kirsten Dunst, Rose becomes so grimly aware of Phil’s loathing that is too paralysed by intimidation to even play Strauss on her newly purchased piano in front of George’s distinguished guests (Phil pointedly plays the music far better on his banjo and takes to whistling in in Rose’s presence) and later tips into alcoholic incoherence.

Despite Dunst’s strong performance, if the film has a flaw it is that we don’t quite invest in Rose enough to empathise fully with her emotional collapse. Both she and George (a fine performance of not-too-bright-decency from Plemons, in the least flashy role) disappear for stretches and play out parts of their relationship off camera, making it harder to bond with them (a bond the earlier part of the film needs). It perhaps might have been more effective to centre the film’s opening act on Rose rather than Phil, allowing us to relate to her better and feel her decline more.

Dunst however nails Rose’s growing fear, desperation and depression while her status as an unwelcome guest is constantly forced on her. Her panic only deepens with the return of her son Peter. This is where the film takes a series of unexpected shifts. To the surprise of all Phil offers to take the sensitive, quiet Pete under his wing: perhaps he’s impressed by Pete’s indifference to the homophobic abuse from the ranch-hands, perhaps he sees a chance to spiritually resurrect his mentor by playing the same role himself to Phil (pointedly, the film implies the younger Phil may not have been dissimilar from Pete). Either way, Campion’s film heads into its extraordinary and deeply impactful second half as an unsettling and uncertain personal drama between two men who seem totally different but may perhaps have more similarities than expected.

As Peter, Kodi Smit-McPhee gives a wonderfully judged performance of inscrutability and reserve. He’s an artistic boy who creates detailed paper flowers and keeps artistic scrapbooks, but can dissect animals without a flinch and snaps the neck of an injured rabbit with ease. He seems alternately devoted to his mother then queasily distant from her, calling her Rose and unsettled by her drunken inappropriateness. His motivations remain enigmatic, just as Phil’s motivations for befriending this isolated and very different boy could fall either way. Smit-McPhee and Cumberbatch are both extraordinarily good in the scenes between this unlikely partnership, and Campion’s artful film keeps us on our toes as to precisely what they want from this friendship. The result is haunting.

It leads into a stunning final act which demands we re-evaluate all we have seen and leaves such a lasting impression I was still re-living the film in my mind days later. Campion’s film is masterfully shot and carries a wonderful atmosphere of intimidation and unease, helped hugely by Johnny Greenwood’s brilliant score with its unsettling piano-inspired cadences. It reinvents itself constantly, Campion’s direction shifting tone and genre masterfully. It’s quite brilliantly acted and provides Cumberbatch in particular with an opportunity he seizes upon to slowly reveal depths of emotion and vulnerability an outwardly straight-forward monster. There won’t be many finer films released in 2021: and this will be a classic to sit alongside The Piano in Campion’s work.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2020)

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Daniel Kaluuya excels as the betrayed Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah

Director: Shaka King

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield (Bill O’Neal), Daniel Kaluuya (Fred Hampton), Jesse Plemons (Agent Roy Mitchell), Dominque Fishback (Deborah Johnson), Ashton Saunders (Jimmy Palmer), Algee Smith (Jake Winters), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Bobby Rush), Lil Rel Howery (Judy Harmon), Martin Sheen (J. Edgar Hoover), Amari Cheatom (Rod Collins), Jermaine Fowler (Mark Clark)

In the 1960s, America was in violent turmoil. Simmering racial tensions were exploding, as a younger, politically engaged generation refused to accept the status quo of the past. Facing them was a reactionary, institutionally racist law and order system, determined to take any steps necessary to stop them. Violence was inevitable and the anger and resentments of that time still carry a powerful legacy today. It’s these emotions that Judas and the Black Messiah engages with. Impassioned and ambitious film-making, it often tries to do too much but still leaves a powerful impression.

In Chicago in 1968, Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is a car thief and conman, who uses a faked FBI badge to steal cars. Arrested (and beaten), he is given a choice by FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) – serve time for his offences or turn informant for the FBI. O’Neal is ordered to join the Black Panther Party – and to get as close as he can to the charismatic leader of the Illinois chapter, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Hampton is radical, but also a visionary leader who is attempting to build a “rainbow coalition” that will unite black, Puerto Rican and white working classes to campaign on a wide range of social issues, from race to healthcare and education: a vision the FBI sees as a nightmare. O’Neal’s information is used to help frame Hampton, as events build inexorably towards his permanent removal.

Judas and the Black Messiah is dynamic and electric film-making. Shaka King’s film hums with righteous fury at the hypocrisy, racism and violence of the law enforcement agencies towards the Chicago black community (effectively the police are an occupying force, perpetrating violence and injustice). While not shying away from the violent response from many of the Black Panthers – including showing one white police officer executed while begging for his life – it paints an unsparing picture of the racism and cruelty of the Chicago police. Innocent black people are bludgeoned and abused. Those in the Black Panthers are framed for crimes, brutalised in prison and murdered in police custody. The outrage and fury of the film is both justified and affecting.

Simultaneously there is a powerful sense of grief at the loss of a golden opportunity – and the inspiration of a visionary leader, who could have grown to become a key figure in American history. King’s film explores the all-too-short life of Hampton before his murder. It delicately paints his charisma but also carefully establishes his vision. His recognition that social, educational and medical improvements are at least as important to ordinary black people as political rights. His attempt to build a coalition of the downtrodden, white and black. His status as the only man who could unite this coalition. His loss an incalculable tragedy for his cause and also for America.

This powerful picture is further framed by Kaluuya’s marvellous performance as Hampton. Kaluuya perfectly captures the charisma and electricity of Hampton’s public speaking, his ability to marshal words and move crowds. With a bulked-up physicality and head-cocking defiance, he wonderfully conveys Hampton’s ability to persuade and inspire, his lack of fear and passion to see justice done. But Kaluuya also makes him wonderfully human. In intimate moments with his girlfriend Deborah (very well played by Dominique Fishback), Kaluuya makes Hampton gentle, shy, even a little nervous – giving him a very real emotional hinterland that sits naturally alongside (and contrasts with) his activist public persona. This is a stunningly good performance.

It also, perhaps, unbalances the film slightly. King’s film is ambitious – but it is attempting to do too much within its two-hour runtime. This is a film that wants to explore the corruption of the law forces, the terrible plight of black Americans, the life of Fred Hampton and the story of his betrayer Bill O’Neal. It’s this final story that actually ends up feeling the least defined – and least engaging – of the film’s plot threads (unfortunate as it’s the one that gives the film its title).

None of this is the fault of Lakeith Stanfield, who gives a marvellous performance of weakness, fear, self-preservation and regretful self-loathing as O’Neal. But his relationship with Hampton never feels close or personal enough. In fact, the two of them feel very distanced from each other. The sense of the personal in the betrayal is lost. The idea of O’Neal struggling between loyalty to Hampton and his FBI handler Mitchell (who encourages O’Neal to see him as a sort of surrogate father) is weak, because we never get a real sense of a very personal link between O’Neal and Hampton, or a real sense that O’Neal is deeply conflicted about his betrayal. (Indeed, the film is reduced to explicitly telling us that O’Neal is struggling between betraying the Black Panthers and a true belief in their cause, which feels like a failure of narrative.)

Fundamentally, you could split the film into two movies. One which focuses on Hampton and in which O’Neal is little more than an extra. And another that zeroes in on O’Neal’s struggle with the FBI and fears of being caught, in which Hampton is a distant, inspirational figure. What King’s film fails to do is effectively is bring these two characters together properly. The personal nature of the relationship (and the betrayal) is lost. This isn’t Jesus betrayed by one of his disciples – more like Jesus being cashed in by someone at the temple. It’s a loss to the film.

It feels at times as if O’Neal was the original “hook” but that King became more interested – perhaps rightly – in Hampton and the tensions in Chicago (and America more widely) at the time. Similarly, the film is fascinated by the corruption of the FBI – Martin Sheen makes a chilling, latex covered, appearance as Hoover – and by questions over how far Mitchell (Plemons, decent bur fatally compromised), a relative liberal, is willing to go. In both plot lines, O’Neal is an entry point but becomes less and less the focus. It partly explains perhaps why Stanfield – clearly the “lead” – ended up joining Kaluuya in the supporting actor category at the Oscars. He may well be the lead but his story is the least compelling of the several threads here.

Judas and the Black Messiah is still hugely effective in many places. Its main weakness is in trying to juggle these various plot threads, and not always succeeding in bringing them together as well as it should. Because the O’Neal plot line needs to take up a good share of the run time – but is the thread the film seems least interested in – it does mean some of these scenes drag more than they should, making the film at times seem longer than it should. You can’t help but a feel a film that focused on Hampton alone would have been stronger. King’s film still makes powerful points – but its ideas are sometimes blunted and crowded out by its attempt to cover so much. Impassioned and ambitious, it doesn’t always completely succeed.

The Program (2015)

Ben Foster is the disgraced Lance Armstrong in this functional but insight free biopic The Program

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Ben Foster (Lance Armstrong), Chris O’Dowd (David Walsh), Jesse Plemons (Floyd Landis), Lee Pace (Bill Stapleton), Guillaume Canet (Michele Ferrari), Denis Menochet (Johan Bruyneel), Dustin Hoffman (Bob Hamman), Edward Hogg (Frankie Andreu), Elaine Cassidy (Betsy Andreu), Laura Donnelly (Emma O’Reilly), Sam Hoare (Stephen Stewart)

In sports there has probably never been an icon who fell so far as Lance Armstrong. Stephen Frears’ film reconstructs the story of Armstrong’s – played by Ben Foster – career, from finding his natural build and ability isn’t enough to win the Tour de France, through cancer diagnosis and recovery and then into his record-breaking run of Tour victories, all achieved off the back of running a comprehensive and professional doping system, and his final fall from grace.

Frears’ film is well-made and stylish and good at capturing the freedom and excitement of professional cycle racing. It’s also a skilled reconstruction of its time period, and a fairly well structured chronicle of events, which it reconstructs from journalist David Walsh’s (played here with a fine sense of moral outrage by Chris O’Dowd) book Seven Deadly Sins. Walsh had written stories for several years questioning Armstrong’s achievements, and Frears’ film puts together the events and testimonies that convince Walsh of Armstrong’s cheating with a documentarian skill.

Where the film fails though is its lack of drama and, crucially, its willingness to use dramatic and creative licence to attempt an exploration of Armstrong’s personality. What drove this cancer survivor to abuse his body with a parade of substances? How did Armstrong balance his passionate campaigning for a cure for a cancer with the lie he was presenting the world of how he didn’t just recover from cancer, he used it as a springboard to become the greatest endurance athlete in the world? Basically, what the film doesn’t really try to do, is get inside the head of its lead character.

Instead, the film follows its title: The Program. There is greater interest in the how of this cheating regime, not the why. Now perhaps in real life Armstrong is the shallow, narcissistic bully he often seems here, obsessed with winning at all costs with no moral quandaries at all. But it hardly makes for entertaining or satisfying drama. Foster is a brilliant physical match – and he captures the ruthless forward-drive of Armstrong very well – but this is a film that doesn’t really scratch the surface of what made Armstrong. We never get a sense of his motivations – or really his reactions as the world tumbles around him.

There is a fascinating story to tell here, but it’s almost as if the film is worried about giving this sinner some feet of clay we can sympathise with (to mix a few metaphors). Instead Armstrong is all chilled front and nothing underneath, and his villainy is so central from day one that we get neither a satisfying sense of a hypocrite unmasked nor of a Promethean fall from grace. 

Actually, Frears may well have been more interested in making a film where Jesse Plemons’ Floyd Landis was a central character – the devout Christian persuaded to take part in the doping scheme, who becomes Armstrong’s successor only to be immediately discredited in a way Armstrong would not be for years. It’s the tragedy of Landis that really has dramatic potential – a decent man who is well aware what he is doing is wrong, but is too weak to not accept the easy path to glory. It’s this story that has real dramatic potential – and might well have made a better focus for the movie.

The Program isn’t a bad film. It captures the drama of its sport well, and it brings together the events that led to Armstrong’s fall with professional skill. But it’s more of documentary than a drama and to be honest there isn’t much in it that couldn’t be picked up better from actually reading Walsh’s book. There was a lot of potential here – but it needed a film more willing to explore and understand its central character rather than just condemn him as a monster and move on.

The Irishman (2019)

De Niro and Pacino under digital facelifts bring to life Scorsese’s meditative The Irishman

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran), Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa), Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino), Ray Romano (Bill Bufalino), Bobby Cannavale (Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio), Anna Paquin (Peggy Sheeran), Stephen Graham (Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano), Stephanie Kurtzuba (Irene Sheeran), Jesse Plemons (Chuckie O’Brien), Harvey Keitel (Angelo Bruno)

Scorsese had wanted to make this film for almost 20 years but it took the mega bucks of Netflix (to the tune of over $150 million) to finally bring it to life. With complete creative control, we get Scorsese’s epic as he saw it, an over three-and-a-half hour long sad meditation on the life of the gangster. For the first time in almost 25 years, Scorsese is reunited with his muse Robert De Niro – appearing here under various digital facelifts to tell the story of Frank Sheeran, an Irish member of the Mafia, and his relationship with infamous Teamster union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Was the film worth the effort to make it?

I first saw The Irishman in the cinema. I now feel that was a mistake. This is a film that needs to be soaked in like a warm bath. Like reading an involving novel, it needs to savoured and consumed at your own pace. In the cinema in one take – with no intermission – its runtime is punishing. It’s the worst form of criticism but in one take, the film can overstay its welcome. In fact it can become a little boring.

Re-watching the film a year later at home – where I could break it up into three chunks as (I feel) so many people have, it becomes a richer and more engrossing viewing experience. Because this is a totally different beast to Scorsese’s previous gangster movies, a quiet mood piece, contemplative, sad, a genuinely tragedy-tinged, doom-laden reflection on the emptiness and costly violence of the gangster life, and the empty shells it leaves of the people in it. And at its centre, a man so dehumanised by war, by obeying orders, so lacking of personality, so incapable of emotion it seems, that he ends the film as a blank, lonely, abandoned slate. It’s a real, and deliberate, counter-point to his electric gangster films of the past, from Mean Streets via Goodfellas to Casino and the cartoonish The Departed. Here the price of doing business is your soul – and when that final bullet comes (as it inevitably will) you have nothing to show for it.

It makes for a late Scorsese epic – nearly a TV mini-series – slow-paced, wintery and a perfect counterpoint to Goodfellas. There crime is ruthless but you can see it’s also fun. Here it’s hardwork, unrewarding and inevitably leads to a bloody demise. Time settles on the shoulders of its leads like deadweights and their is a weary sadness as they trudge from one feud to another, each of which can only be resolved by putting another body in the ground. And everyone knows that the next feud might well mean it’s their body that will end up six feet under.

Frank Sheeran is a drained automaton, a human being possibly in name only, who takes on violent acts without question, who can kill without remorse. This is the very picture of a second-tier career criminal, a man who takes orders and carries out missions. De Niro brilliantly creates an sociopathic monster, a man almost devoid of his own personality, with little to him but a taciturn killer. Sheeran is a tough character to relate to or understand – but that’s because he’s not really a character at all. Interestingly he doesn’t have the sort of flaws that undermine other Scorsese gangsters, like Henry Hill. His flaw is in fact his entire existence. His sociopathic acceptance of violence, his thoughtless carrying out of killing, his inability to relate to human beings. It’s what leaves him alone, unloved and isolated in a care-home. This is a man who can barely muster much emotion about killing his best friend, whose quiet, placid nature perhaps only hides his lack of capability of even experiencing emotion.

The Teamster union politics content of the film is often dense and hard-to-follow. At times it tips into being not that interesting. So it’s tough that it takes up almost two hours of the film’s run-time. It’s a sign of the films overindulgence. At the end of the day I’m not sure it adds much to your overall impression of the film. But reviewing the film perhaps that’s the point. The very shallowness and even pettiness of this feuding – not to mention the naked, unromantic greed – over how to distribute union pension money, explodes the myth of any romance to this crime. These are blue-collar conmen, using violence as a way to conclude a board meeting.

As Jimmy Hoffa, Al Pacino is the best he’s been in literally decades – the film uses his “hoo hah” shoutiness to great effect, but Pacino also makes Hoffa an unexpectedly vulnerable and lost figure amongst all the politics, a showman who overestimates his importance and invulnerability. The entire film is shaped (we discover) around a series of flashbacks from Sheeran on a road trip on what turns out to be the final days of Hoffa’s life (the film includes a solution to Hoffa’s famous disappearance). De Niro and Pacino spark beautifully off each other as a bond forms between them – the films lingering on their growing friendship (and at times strangely homoerotic intimacy) one of its strongest elements, as well as carefully demonstrating how disloyalty is a crucial survival skill in this world.

The film strongest elements are the doom-laden nihilism of the gangster life. Told by Scorsese deliberately without flash and excitement, with a score so sparse that long stretches of the film echo with silence, there seems to be no fun at all in the gangster world, instead a series of mundane men sitting in small restaurants, talking about admin and punching the clock. Many of the gangster characters are introduced with on-screen captions that detail the dates and natures of their violent deaths. It’s the exact opposite of what you might expect from a Scorsese film. It’s a director showing the dark flipside of his previous films, of the way the gangster life is a dwindle through a dull life marked with moments of danger, where death is a sudden violent explosion that ends a life too soon.

And it leaves families in a mess. Anna Paquin speaks very few words as Sheeran’s adult daughter, but only because her silent disapproval and disgust at her father’s life becomes the haunting of Sheeran’s whole life. His daughter’s silent disgust is a recurrent theme (even from childhood, she is repulsed by his capacity for violence and his heartlessness). Sheeran’s attempt to break through her silent disapproval, to get her to acknowledge him in some way becomes a large part of the sad coda of Sheeran’s life. It’s all part of Scorsese’s message: what is the point of a life like this that brings wealth and power, but also leaves you broken, lonely and despised by everyone around you?

And you can’t argue with the skill with which this quiet, meditative, grim and slow exploration of the gangster world is put together by Scorsese – or the artistry that every moment of the film has, or the control of the director. It’s beautifully shot and edited. It’s pace is at times glacial, but this is resolved by watching at your own pace on Netflix. It’s not a film to be binged (ironically Scorsese has made a television novel that he wants you to watch in one go) but instead one to be savoured and considered. That’s where it’s strengths are.

There are also excellent performances. Joe Pesci, lured from retirement, is outstanding. He’s a revelation as a sort of cool, calm, grandfatherly fixer a million miles from the lunatics he played in Casino or Goodfellas. Pesci quietly dominates several scenes, using stillness and quiet like a vicious badger who knows he only needs to swat once to remove his foes. This is a performance of beautifully judged grace and stability, a calm reflectiveness that carries a vicious coldness at its heart. Russell may prefer a peaceful solution – but he will order your death without thinking twice. Also excellent is Stephen Graham as the sort of dangerously impulsive bully Pesci played to such great effect in those earlier movies.

And those famous digital facelifts? Well they are fine technically. You ignore them after a while. But no matter of digital trickery can make De Niro move with the gait, physicality or certainty of a man more than 30 years younger than he is. As we watch De Niro (supposedly a killer in his prime) shamble forward, or gingerly give a rude grocer a kicking, you can’t forget that he’s really a much older man. To be honest the film would have been just as good – maybe better – with actors the correct age filling in for the younger roles. Watching it again, I’m never convinced that I am watching a De Niro the age he was in Mean Streets or even Goodfellas. To be honest, at times the facelifts don’t look a lot more convincing than hair dye and a little tape to stretch the skin back.

In fact the digital facelift at times is almost a metaphor for the film: it’s a film where age and time are a constant presence. Knowing the lead actors are old men, trying to look young kind of sits with that. These are not dynamic, triumphant young men. But then they never were. These are men who feel the burdens of the world on their shoulders every day. Who at the end of their lives will have nothing to show for it over than a satisfaction that they managed to live slightly longer than they expected. Whose friends and family will hate them and who find they sold their souls and gained nothing but dust in exchange. Long, slow, sometimes trying – but on a second rewatch, also compelling, thought-provoking, heartfelt, insightful and inspiring.

Vice (2018)

Christian Bale slaps on the make-up as Dick Cheney in Vice

Director: Adam McKay

Cast: Christian Bale (Dick Cheney), Amy Adams (Lynne Cheney), Steve Carell (Donald Rumsfield), Sam Rockwell (George W Bush), Alison Pill (Mary Cheney), Lily Rabe (Liz Cheney), Jesse Plemons (Kurt), Tyler Perry (Colin Powell), Justin Kirk (Scooter Libby), LisaGay Hamilton (Condoleezza Rice), Eddie Marsan (Paul Wolfowitz), Bill Camp (Gerald Ford), Don McManus (David Addington)

There is a film to be made about the turmoil of the Bush presidency. It’s not this film. Adam McKay’s flashy, clumsy, cartoonish, smug, tedious, overlong, arrogant and polemical film quickly outstays its welcome, drowning any legitimate ideas and theories it has under a wave of high-minded, angry shouting at the viewer, frequently mistaking flash and bombast for actual political insight and producing the sort of heavy-handed, angry political commentary that wouldn’t look out of place in a cheap student review. And flipping heck I’m on the liberal left!

Anyway, the film follows the career of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale under an impressive pile of make-up) from his early wash-out days. Told by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) to buck his ideas up or lose her, Cheney becomes an intern for Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), rising through the ranks due to his ruthless efficiency and loyalty, becoming Chief of Staff under Ford and Secretary of Defence under Bush. So he’s a natural choice for the inexperienced George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) to balance the presidential ticket. In return, though, Cheney wants control over a few areas – energy, foreign policy, defence etc. etc. – that the lazy Bush has no interest in overseeing. So a quiet, backroom politician changes the office of the Vice President to become the most powerful man in the world. Boo hiss.

McKay’s intention with this film is to reveal the hollowness, greed and utter lack of integrity in its subject. Well he never lets us forget this aim – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that so openly hated its lead character, which so completely refused to see any redeeming qualities in him whatsoever. Christ, even Downfall took a few minutes to show Hitler was generally kind to those who worked for him. The film is so unrelenting in its loathing for Cheney that it starts to feel like a being shouted out for over two hours by an “it’s the end of the world” fanatic on a street corner. This does not make for good entertainment.

The film has no subtlety whatsoever. Not for a single second does it even consider the remote possibility that anyone in the Republican party might, perhaps, just maybe, even if it was only some of the time, believe that they were doing something for a principled reason, even if it was a principle those on the left don’t agree with. Instead, all the characters are shown as selfish, greedy and corrupt, using ideology solely to gain power and then using power only to enrich themselves. It’s the sort of lazy political views that turn people off liberals – the idea that anyone who doesn’t share a liberal viewpoint is by definition evil. Some of us grew out of this kneejerk assumption that everyone who doesn’t agree with us is self-serving and cruel. Not McKay. 

On top of which, McKay’s film is made with the overt flash and brio that is the hallmark of the hack director using the tools of cinema with no understanding of their proper use. Wonky camerawork, cutting between timelines, throwing in newsreel footage, breaking the fourth wall, using strange camera angles, chucking in cameo actors to amusingly comment on events (Alfred Molina and Naomi Watts principally) and editing it with flash don’t make you a great director. They make you someone who has seen a lot of films and lot of techniques, but has no understanding of how to use them to craft an overall effect, instead thinking that if you throw all of them at the wall at once, you’ll be a master craftsman.

The film is full of studenty bits of invention that must have seemed oh-so-clever on paper in McKay’s script. Forty minutes in, with Cheney’s career looking over with the end of the Bush presidency, McKay starts running the credits – only to snap back into the film with the fateful phone call from Dubya. It’s clever and raises a quick chuckle, but doesn’t add anything to a sense of turning point in Cheney’s life. It’s followed by a clumsy metaphor of moments being like tea cups balanced on top of each other (inevitably these are later shown tumbling down) to represent how key moments of history build on each other. The real nadir is a moment when Dick and Lynne fall back into cod-Shakespearean dialogue in the bedroom as they discuss a possible vice presidency. ‘We don’t have Shakespeare’s psychologically insightful dialogue’ (I paraphrase) says the voiceover, before this skin-crawling hand-in-mouth sequence that shows McKay knows as much about Shakespeare as he does subtle political commentary.

Ah yes the voiceover. Perhaps not knowing how to marshall his childish political points in actual scenes and dialogue, McKay uses a voiceover from Jesse Plemons’ ground-forces marine to spell out as bluntly and crudely as possible the basic and trivial points it wants to make. The damn film already feels like being hectored by a crank, so why not make it feel even more like a polemic by having a character bitterly explain why everything is wicked and evil at you? The narration bores – and joins the general feeling of the rest of the film, that it goes on forever and ever and ever and never, ever, ever says something really interesting or revealing.

The performances are a mixed bag. Bale gives a decent turn as Cheney, capturing his mannerisms and conveying a sense of dark ambition, but it’s a role he could play standing on his head. Amy Adams turns Lynne into a Lady Macbeth, in a reheat of her performance from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Every other performance is a crude cartoon – Carell’s Rumsfeld a putty-faced joke, Sam Rockwell’s Bush (an impossibly generous Oscar nomination) a cartoonish buffoon. Everyone else coasts through it, patting themselves on the back.

There is an argument to be made that Cheney’s legacy is far from good, and it’s certain that we are paying a heavy price for interventions in Iraq. Many of the policies were less than savoury and left a less than positive benefit. But this film hammers these points home with all the charm of a ranting, drunk politics student who has read one book and watched a lot of YouTube videos. With McKay’s soulless, clumsy, look-at-me direction layered on top, this is a flat out terrible film. Save yourself what feels like much more than its two hour run time. In fact I’ll summarise it for you: CHENEY IS EVIL AND HORRIBLE AND HE (LITERALLY) HAS NO HEART. There you go. You don’t need to see it now.

The Post (2017)

Hanks and Streep bust Watergate in advance in Spielberg’s too dry The Post

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Meryl Streep (Katharine Graham), Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee), Sarah Paulson (Tony Bradlee), Bob Odenkirk (Ben Bagdikian), Tracy Letts (Fritz Beebe), Bradley Whitford (Arthur Parsons), Bruce Greenwood (Robert McNamara), Matthew Rhys (Daniel Ellsberg), Alison Brie (Lally Graham), Carrie Coon (Meg Greenfield), Jesse Plemons (Roger Clark), David Cross (Howard Simons), Michael Stuhlbarg (AM Rosenthal)

There are few things newspaper journalists like more than old-fashioned films about the glory days of the press, showing journalists to be uniformly noble, upstanding, seekers of truth. There are few things Hollywood likes more than films the feature Streep and Hanks and/or are directed by Spielberg. As such, it’s not really a surprise that The Post received laudatory reviews, or that it crept into the Best Picture list of 2017 (it only got one other nomination, inevitably for Streep).

The film covers the Washington Post’s decision in 1971 to publish details from the Pentagon Papers, originally leaked to the New York Timesby former Defence Department official Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys). The papers detail the American government’s deceptive public messages on Vietnam, a war they knew to be unwinnable for almost ten years. The Nixon administration has blocked publication in the New York Times, but when the Post gets the same papers, owner and publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) have a difficult decision to make – suppress the truth or publish and face crippling legal penalties that could destroy the business.

The Post is quite similar in some ways to Spielberg’s far more successful Lincoln – a po-faced history lesson, told with panache, but essentially a dry civics lesson which draws some neat, but a little too on point, parallels with current events. Certainly it’s clear whom we are meant to be thinking of when the camera shows a shadowy Nixon in long shot from outside the White House, ranting into a phone in the Oval office late at night (admittedly, in a nice touch, the film uses the actual audio from Nixon’s Oval Office recordings). The parallels between press freedom and the spin of politics (or the charges of Fake News flung at any story the powers that be don’t like) are pretty clear. They are also pretty obvious.

Part of the film’s problem is that, unlike All the President’s Men (where the story covers full investigative journalism and Woodward and Bernstein need to piece the story together against the odds), this film hands everything to the journalists on a plate. It doesn’t even try to put a puzzle or some form of mystery before the viewers. Instead, the history is painstakingly (and drily) explained to give us the context, then each stage of the Post getting the papers is shown in simple and rather undramatic steps. There isn’t a sense – despite Bob Odenkirk’s deputy editor doing a bit of legwork – that the Post needed to work that hard to land the story. Crikey, you can see why The Times (who really did the crack the story) were a bit pissed at the film stealing their glory.

Once the papers are in the Post’s hands, the story almost immediately jumps to one night in which the papers are read and the board and the journalists squabble over whether they can legally publish or not. After that we get a swift coda where everything turns out fine, backs are slapped and the Supreme Court says it’s all good. There just isn’t quite enough drama. In fact we feel like we are watching a footnote, rather than the real story, which seems to be happening on the margins (for starters, the scandal of government lies on Vietnam, how The New York Times broke the story, and the Watergate break-in, a recreation of which rather clumsily closes the picture).

And I get that the film is trying to tell a story about how important a free press is and, yes, it’s great – but despite having a number of characters talk at length about this, I’m not sure what the film really tells us that we don’t already know. Instead it moves methodically but swiftly through events, carefully telling us what happened but never turning it into a really compelling story. Pizzazz for its own sake is not a strength, but a little more oomph in delivery here might have helped.

Alongside this, the film also wants to make points about the struggle of a woman in a man’s world and the institutional sexism (that probably hasn’t changed that much) of many boardrooms. Meryl Streep’s Katharine Graham – having inherited the company after the suicide of her husband – is a brow-beaten woman struggling to impose herself in a room of men whom she feels inferior to. Even this plotline though feels slightly rushed – we have Graham cowering in a boardroom meeting and struggling with paperwork, next thing we know she hesitantly makes the call to publish and is facing down her chief opponent (Bradley Whitford, rolling out another of his arrogant men of privilege). It’s all a bit rushed, perfunctory and all as expected – and Streep can clearly play this sort of role standing on her head.

But then the whole film has this slight comfort job feeling about it – everyone clearly invested in the story and the importance of the film’s points, but clearly without being challenged by the content. By the end of the film we’re are awash with clichés, from newspaper print rolling through old machines, to Graham walking through a crowd of admiring women outside the Supreme Court. The interesting and well assembled cast don’t get enough to do, with many of them feeling slightly wasted, not least Sarah Paulson in a thankless role as “the wife”.

The Post wants to be a big, world-changing film that talks about our modern age. Instead it’s a very middle brow, middle of the road history lesson that flatters to deceive, entertaining enough just about, but immediately forgettable.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance find common ground in the Cold War in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Hanks (James B Donovan), Mark Rylance (Rudolf Abel), Amy Ryan (Mary Donovan), Sebastian Koch (Wolfgang Vogel), Alan Alda (Thomas Watters), Austin Stowell (Francis Gary Powers), Scott Shepherd (CIA Agent Hoffman), Billy Magnussen (Doug Forrester), Jesse Plemons (Joe Murphy), Dakin Matthews (Judge Mortimer W Byers)

Steven Spielberg is perhaps best known for his cult block busters – and has indeed directed some of the finest popular adventure movies you are likely to see. But more of his output – particularly in recent years – is focused on intelligent, slightly old-school, handsome, period films that look to shed light on political and social issues of the past. Bridge of Spies falls firmly into this camp, an extremely well-made (if rather dry at times) prestige picture, blessed with a fascinating story and some very fine performances.

In 1957, Soviet agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in New York and put on trial. He’s the most unpopular man in America – except perhaps for the man plucked from a list of New York attorneys to defend him, James B Donovan (Tom Hanks). Donovan doesn’t endear himself to the American public by successfully defending Abel from the death penalty, but he’s proved right when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over the USSR, and a prisoner exchange is set up for Abel and Powers, with Donovan negotiating the details in a wintery Berlin.

Bridge of Spies has an old-fashioned charm to it – you can totally imagine it popping up on a bank holiday afternoon. It’s what you might call “grown-up entertainment” in the sense that it tells a character-focused story. It’s made with an unfussy assurance that never allows its cinematic excellence to get flashy, and it patiently unfolds an intriguing character study that gives excellent opportunities to some gifted actors. 

It’s also got a vein of wit running through it – you can see the fingerprints of the Coen brothers, brought in to do a polish of the script. They are there in the touches of the absurd as Donovan goes behind the Iron Curtain, mixing with an eccentric group of East Germans pretending to Abel’s family. Their also there in the moments of chill around the East German forces who suppress freedom and endanger lives. But it’s brought to life because Spielberg is such a wonderful, vibrant director.

Spielberg knows where to bring the flash and where to settle and let the camera watch the actors at work. Despite the calm of the general shooting, the film is packed with some wonderful sequences of bravura film-making, told so skilfully and with enough confidence that they don’t need to draw attention to themselves with overly flashy camera work or editing. But sequences such as the one that begins the film with Abel unknowingly being followed through New York, or Powers’ U-2 flight being shot down, or a horrified Donovan watching luckless Germans try to climb the Berlin Wall while he rides a train expelling him from East Germany, are made with a confident, unflashy flair.

It’s a film which has a real understanding of the paranoia and knee-jerk prejudice of the Cold War (on both sides of the curtain, but particularly in America), that mixes this with a note of hope in the essential decency of those on the ground – Roger Ebert described it as like a John Le Carre if it had been directed by Frank Capra – and that’s a good description. Spielberg’s film casts Donovan as the “little guy” who has to do the right thing and struggle to be accepted by his fellow Americans. Donovan’s travails in East Berlin have a Capra-ish quality to them, as his straight-shooting decency and integrity come up against the oblique games and half-truths of professional diplomats and spies. Abel as well is basically a solid, stand-up guy with a very clear moral compass and a dry wit that points out the quirks of both American and Soviet systems.

Tom Hanks is perfect casting as Donovan. He’s much overlooked as a great actor, and Donovan plays to his strengths, using all his integrity and trustworthiness to great effect. His Donovan is an honest broker, a man who believes above all in the cause of justice and has a good-natured confidence that allows him to never be flummoxed or even to show too much impatience with those putting obstacles in his way, even as he works overtime to get his way. It’s a perfect Hanks part played by perfection.

The film also boasts an excellent, Oscar-winning, performance by Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. Embracing the movies for the first time, Rylance could probably play Abel standing on his head, and this acting heavyweight turns in a performance full of sparkle and wit. Rylance is softly spoken, with a combination of world-weariness, wry humour and a dry unreadability. Abel however is also a fiercely loyal and decent man – and it’s the contrast and bond that develops between him and Donovan that powers the movie.

In fact you can’t help but miss him in the second half, interesting as Donovan’s patiently done and labyrinthine negotiations between the KGB, Stasi and CIA become. At times this second half becomes slightly drier than the rest – as if Spielberg can’t quite manage to keep the sense of intimidation and danger in place for the whole of these protracted scenes of bluff and double bluff. It’s also probably a fraction too long. It’s not a perfect movie after all – Donovan’s family are a series of bland identities (“Honey stop trying to end the Cold War and come to bed”) and the film’s final coda of Donovan getting the approval of the American people on contrasting train rides is a little too trite in its “ain’t freedom great” tone.

But I really like Bridge of Spies. It’s calm, it’s assured, it’s very well made, it’s very well acted. There is a lot of quality on show here – it practically drips off the show – and it’s made by a director who knows he doesn’t need to wrestle your attention with every shot to keep it. Spielberg is a director so talented that he can excel at making intelligent, grown-up movies that have something for everyone. For all that it’s slightly overlong and can’t quite keep its momentum up, I really like it.

Black Mass (2015)

Johnny Depp dives into his make-up box in this sup-par wannabe Goodfellas

Director: Scott Cooper

Cast: Johnny Depp (James “Whitey” Bulger), Joel Edgerton (John Connolly), Benedict Cumberbatch (William Bulger), Rory Cochrane (Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi), Kevin Bacon (Charles McGuire), Jesse Plemons (Kevin Weeks), Peter Sarsgaard (Brian Halloran), Dakota Johnson (Lindsey Cyr), Corey Stoll (Fred Wyshak), David Harbour (John Morris), Julianne Nicholson (Marianne Connolly), Adam Scott (Robert Fitzpatrick), Brad Carter (John McIntyre), W. Earl Brown (Johnny Martorano)

Well Goodfellas casts a long shadow doesn’t it? Certainly long enough to completely drown Black Mass which, despite some good acting and period detail, never really comes together into something compelling or engrossing or even really that interesting. But you’ve got to admire how often Scott Cooper must have watched Scorsese’s classic. Shame he didn’t bring anything new to the table.

In South Boston in the mid-1970s, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) controls organised crime. With his rule under challenge from rival gangs, Bulger turns informer to the FBI – specifically agent and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) – offering information on his rivals in return for being allowed to take over their business. Inevitably, Bulger exploits the relationship for his own gain – with the increasingly blind-eye of Connolly who becomes more and more embroiled in the underworld. 

So there are good things in this. The period detail is pretty good. There are plenty of good gangster moments, even if they’re the reheated leftovers from everything from The Sopranos to Goodfellas. The low-level gangsters we follow have a slightly different perspective – even if most of their characters are completely interchangeable. It’s interesting that Bulger moved in such legitimate circles as the FBI and his State Senate President brother (well played by Benedict Cumberbatch). But the film never really makes this come together to mean anything. You don’t learn anything, you don’t understand anything new – it’s just a series of events.

That’s despite, to be fair, a very good performance by Johnny Depp. Sure the part caters to Depp’s Olivier-like love of the dressing-up box – here he sports bad teeth, a bald patch, a paunch and a pair of searing bright-blue contacts that make him look like a Muppet demon – but for all that, he is very good. His natural presence works to make Bulger a leader and he has a swaggering, dry, cruel quality to him that never makes him anything less than unsettling. He also conveys the monstrous moral blankness behind Bulger, using a fig-leaf of loyalty to cover his destruction.

It’s a shame then that he’s not really given anything to do. Too much of the part is reminiscent of other things: from Jack Nicholson in The Departed (to be fair, Bulger was the inspiration for that character), to Joe Pesci’s “Do I amuse you?” speech or his insanity from Casino. Montages as tired as a sleepless night run through the collection of funds and the beating of rivals. It’s just all so predictable. It’s a box ticking exercise. Yawn.

The biggest shame is that, in Connolly, the film has a far more interesting potential lead character. Imagine it repositioned to follow him instead: the semi-chancer, semi-star-struck kid swept up in the glamour of crime. So much more interesting. How far did he turn a blind eye? How far was he essentially an accomplice? Did he feel or know he was doing the wrong thing? Consider Depp’s brilliance in Donnie Brasco and then imagine what he could have made of this Faustian figure: and what an interesting film we could have had.

Instead, good as Edgerton is, the film barely scrapes the surface of his thoughts or motivations. We get beats – and his wife (excellently played by Julianne Nicholson) is clearly disgusted by his gangster friends – but it constantly falls flat as we keep pulling back to Bulger, or internal FBI arguments that tell us nothing. On top of this Bulger’s empire is ham-fistedly explained: it’s never clear what his reach is, what his main crimes are or what his aims are. We see killings but don’t often know why – and a sequence in Miami is so poorly explained I still don’t know what it was about.

The film introduces Bulger’s lieutenants – but reduces them to identikit hangers on. All the flash-back retrospective confessions (a framing device the film uses to very mixed effect) in the world can’t turn them into characters. Even Bulger’s relationship with his patrician brother gets lost in the shuffle – again a film focused on a crime lord and his State Senator brother would have been more interesting.

Black Mass is well made – but its problem is that there is on the edges a far more interesting film that never comes into focus. If they had chosen a different focus we could have had a film worth watching. Instead, like Connolly, the film is seduced away by the dark soul of Bulger. Depp is great – but the film is so in love with him and his transformation that it becomes something completely forgettable.