Vice

Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Jesse Plemons

Director: Adam McKay

Writer: Adam McKay


Whatever one might think about his politics or the quality of his work, Adam McKay is undoubtedly one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. After having built a career out of making cleverly, creatively dumb comedy films with Will Ferrell, his forte has transitioned over to what’s called the essay film. Following in the tradition of such documentaries as F for FakeThe Gleaners & I and pretty much every Michael Moore film, McKay’s latest filmography is one that blurs the line between fact and fiction, expresses abstract ideas in concrete, tangible terms and engages with the viewer in an open, self-reflexive dialogue. He employed this format to startling effect in The Big Short where he deconstructed the causes of the financial crisis of 2008 in a way that was both entertaining and educational. McKay has a genius for explaining complex themes and concepts in simple ways that viewers can easily understand and there is no other filmmaker working today who is pushing the possibilities of the essay film further than he is. With his latest film McKay once again draws from the well of modern history to recount the story of one of the most notorious and reviled figures in American politics (which is seriously saying something!), former Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Vice follows Dick Cheney through his political career, starting with his days as a White House intern during the Nixon administration and ending with his turn as Vice President under George W. Bush (a delightfully cartoonish Sam Rockwell). While maintaining a personal life with his wife and two daughters, Cheney learns the ins and outs of White House politics and takes each lesson to heart as he sees presidents rise and fall and discovers the truth about the true power that runs the country. Finding great success under the Ford and Reagan administrations, Cheney’s time truly comes when the buffoonish Dubya invites him over to his Texas ranch and invites him to be his second-in-command. Realising that he can transcend what has traditionally been more or less a ceremonial role in the US government, Cheney accepts and offers to oversee the more “mundane” parts of governance such as bureaucracy, military, energy and, uh… foreign policy. With all the influence he needs and nobody watching, Cheney ascends to become the country’s de facto ruler. Working from the shadows, he imposes his will upon the United States with an iron fist and, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, sets the nation on a path that will lead them into a catastrophic war.

Looking the spitting image of the man thanks to the work of the make-up team and sporting a soft yet menacing growl throughout, Christian Bale (who never met a character he wouldn’t completely transform his body to play) portrays Cheney in this portrait of an infamous public figure about whom surprisingly little is actually known. The film records how he started off as a blue-collar drunk barely scraping by and rose little by little to become the puppetmaster of the Bush administration, the man who was really in charge while Dubya played the fool and distracted everyone from what was really going on. Between those two points is an endless gulf of ambiguities and unknowns which McKay fills in with commentary, abridgements and digression, all of which serve to help us get to the heart of who Cheney really was and what he wanted. The problem is that by the time I got to the end, I still wasn’t sure who exactly the film thought Cheney was. The Vice-President was a very bad man who did some very bad things, that much the movie is clear on, yet it never manages to tap into what exactly they think Cheney’s ideology is or if he even has one. We gets hints and implications such as how Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton, an energy company that just so happened to do well when the USA invaded Iraq, but that alone doesn’t seem sufficient in light of how the film depicts him.

The way the film tells it, there were two figures in his life who had the most profound effect on Cheney. The first was his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams), a Lady Macbeth figure if ever there was one (there’s even a scene in which Dick and Lynne engage in a Shakespearian exchange). She is shown to be the woman behind the man, the one who berates him into making something of himself and who reminds him at every turn not to forget what it is they’ve both been working for (whatever that is). The other is Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) the slimy Republican who taught Cheney everything he knew about being ruthless, sneaky and totally amoral in modern politics. “What do we believe in?” Cheney asks him upon becoming a card-carrying member of the Republican Party and Rumsfeld laughs uproariously in his face. Between these two forces moulding him into the villainous political mastermind he would become, we get a sense of Cheney as a man of great, pitiless ambition who will pull every dirty trick in the book and sell out on every fibre of his moral being in order to get what he wants. But what does he want? Well, when the film allows Cheney himself a chance to explain, it appears that everything he did was about protecting his country and its people. “I will not apologise”, he says hardheartedly and with contempt “for doing what needed to be done so that your loved ones can sleep peaceably at night”. But that’s not the truth of it and, the harder the film tries to get under the skin of this inscrutable man, the more confused everything gets.

That wouldn’t necessarily be so bad since few things in life are ever that simple and one can never truly know the true depths of another person’s soul (or lack thereof) in its infinite entirety. Vice however doesn’t know that it’s confused. It charges along with all the confidence of a white, rich, C-student man running for the presidency through the main events of Cheney’s life, jumping back and forth in time for no apparent narrative reason, and in the end it never manages to land on a satisfying note. There are several gimmicky moments that are great fun by themselves, Bale delivers a marvellously sinister performance and the creative licence McKay takes to tell this messy story in an engaging and entertaining way does impress. There are fourth wall breaks, a syncopated editing style that keeps the viewer on their toes, an unconventional framing device with a twist ending, a false end credits sequence and dozens of little touches here and there that allow McKay’s cheeky sense of humour to remain prominent through it all. It doesn’t amount to much though because the elaborate, convoluted essay that McKay has constructed doesn’t end up revealing any kind of meaningful insight on its own subject. Unless you are below a certain age or don’t live in the United States (both of which, I’ll admit, are true about myself), Vice has little of worth to offer on the question of who Dick Cheney is beyond, as Bale himself suggested in his Golden Globe acceptance speech, Satan incarnate.

★★★

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Despicable Me 3

Cast: (voiced by) Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker, Miranda Cosgrove, Steve Coogan, Jenny Slate, Dana Gaier, Julie Andrews

Directors: Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda

Writers: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio


Although I was never a big fan of Despicable Me, I could understand the appeal. It had a fun idea that allowed room for both humour and sentiment, it was well animated and had some good performances, and the Minions in particular were enjoyable in their scene-stealing moments. Despicable Me 2 was serviceable as a sequel but otherwise forgettable. It lacked the novelty of the original, its humour got more childish and unimaginative, and the popularity of the Minions led to the expansion of their roles, at which point they started to feel a little much. When Minions came along I ended up not seeing it because I was about as interested in watching the Minions in their own movie as I would if they were the Oompa Loompas or the aliens in Toy Story. They’re fine in brief segments, but not as protagonists in a feature-length narrative. Now, with Despicable Me 3, it feels to me like this franchise has seriously run out of steam.

Gru, having left his villainous ways behind him, is now a member of the Anti-Villain League with his wife Lucy and is tasked with stopping Balthazar Bratt, a former child TV star turned supervillain. Gru is able to foil Bratt’s plan to steal the world’s largest diamond but fails to catch him, leading to Gru and Lucy being dismissed from their jobs. Shortly after informing his daughters Margo, Edith, and Agnes of their termination, Gru receives an invitation to fly to Freedonia (Land of the Brave and Free!) to meet Dru, his long-lost twin brother. The family meets Dru at his estate and learn that he is charming, handsome and fabulously wealthy. Later Dru reveals to Gru that the source of his wealth is their father, who was in fact a legendary supervillain. Dru enlists Gru to return to his old ways and to teach him how to follow their father in his footsteps. Gru however, desperate to get him and Lucy their old jobs back, decides to take advantage of Dru’s resources to catch Bratt before he can proceed with his villainous plot.

With a story about three adoptive daughters in the first film and one that ended with Gru falling in love and getting married in the second, it’s very clear that Despicable Me is a series very much about family and that continues in this film. Here Gru is reunited with a brother he never knew he had and gets to learn more about himself and where he came from while bonding with this person who is so different from him in so many ways and yet in many other ways so identical. Lucy meanwhile is realising that by marrying Gru she also married his three daughters and is struggling to step into the role of their mother. Either or both of these stories could have been interesting and touching enough to make for an enjoyable family movie. The trouble is that Despicable Me targets itself towards a very young demographic and is ill-equipped to tackle these stories with the maturity they warrant. This isn’t to say that the stories cannot be made accessible to young children, but when a movie elects to open up with a fart joke during the production company’s logo, I think that sends a clear message about the kind of tone the movie is going for.

Now, if a movie doesn’t care about nuance and just wants to keep an audience of six-year-olds entertained for a couple of hours, that’s fine. But I don’t think that Despicable Me 3 does that particularly well. The story they’ve put together with its points about Gru and Lucy’s concerns for the future with the loss of their jobs and the family dynamics is just not engaging for young viewers. The characters are not rich enough and their problems are not relatable enough. There are a couple of sub-plots that might catch children’s interest like Agnes’ search for her very own unicorn and the Minions’ misadventures in prison and a TV talent show, but they’re so disconnected from the main story that if either or both plots were removed entirely barely a single thing would change. The movie would be less fun, considering that those two subplots contain the film’s best moments (as annoying as the Minions can be, even I had to chuckle during their rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan), but otherwise the same beats of the main stories would still play out in the same way. It also doesn’t help that the main villain is one big joke about a the 80’s, decade about which little kids are pretty much clueless.

More than anything Despicable Me 3 is a guaranteed paycheck for the studio. Even the cast seemed largely disinterested, especially Trey Parker who turned in his most generic South Park voice for a movie that’s about two MPAA ratings below what he needs to excel. Carell does well enough for Gru to remain an entertaining character but he doesn’t bring anything new or surprising to his performance despite having an entire second character to play. The movie is bright, noisy, and recognisable enough that kids will flock to the theatre to see it and will probably even enjoy it. What the studio either doesn’t realise or doesn’t care about though is that, in the long run, those kids are not going to embrace this film because it doesn’t offer them anything worth returning to. There are no valuable lessons to take away, no unforgettable moments that demand to be relived and no qualities that make this movie rewarding to an older audience. Any attempt this movie makes to be more grown-up backfires because it simply isn’t smart, competent or mature enough to handle that kind of material.

★★

The Big Short

Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt

Director: Adam McKay

Writers: Adam McKay, Charles Randolph


I was about 15 when the when the financial crisis took place and understood absolutely nothing about what was happening. Now I’m a 23-year-old student studying for a degree in History and still have no understanding of what happened. The big obstacle faced by any film that aims to tackle a story based on a major economic incident is that few people understand economics and even fewer care to understand. It is near-impossible for any film to invest its audience in a story that they cannot follow so Adam McKay’s job in The Big Short is to try and present a hugely complicated and often dull subject to the average mainstream viewer in an informative yet entertaining way. Not only does the film succeed in this but it even manages to draw the viewer even further in with its off-beat tone, complex characters and deep moral debate.

The plot can be broken down into three separate but interlinked stories. The first is centred around Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager who notices in 2005 that cracks are starting to appear in the housing market, the bedrock of the U.S. economy. Predicting a financial collapse within the next couple of years he invests the entirety of his fund against the housing market, much to his investors’ displeasure. The second story is set off by a trader called Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who hears about Burry’s actions and realises which way the wind is blowing. He enlists the help of the hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) so that they might profit off the greed and stupidity of the banks that caused this impending crisis. The third story follows two young investors called Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) who hear about Vennett’s plan. They too decide to make a profit out of this whole mess with the help of the retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). As these characters learn more about the nature of this crisis however they slowly start to realise that the corruption of the economic structure and the scale of the inevitable collapse is greater than any of them could possibly have imagined.

One of the great things about this film is that even though it is tackling a serious topic, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It wants to inform and stimulate its audience but it also wants to entertain them. Therefore The Big Short adopts an off-beat tone that allows it to tell its story however it pleases. If something needs to be made clear to the audience in order for them to follow the story, one of the characters will break the fourth wall and explain it to them. If an analogy needs to be made to explain some sort of economic device or practice, the film will show that analogy in action. If the film is ever in danger of getting bogged down in the details, it’ll throw some comedy into the mix to keep it interesting. This film manages to communicate the information it needs to get across without ever turning into an economics lecture or treating the viewer like an idiot.

What also impressed me was how unheroic the film allowed its characters to be. Michael Burry is driven only by the facts in his actions and simply does what those facts have determined to be the soundest financial move for his investors. Jared Vennett, the film’s narrator, makes it clear from the start that he is a Wall Street shark and is only interested in making money. Mark Baum serves as the film’s moral centre as he shows himself to be deeply sickened by the reprehensible greed of the banks but he’s also an antagonistic, self-righteous jerk who has no qualms about calling somebody an idiot to their face. The satisfaction these characters get from profiting off the banks’ mistakes is sullied for some of them by the realisation that they are to a certain degree part of the problem. While they’re making a fortune out of this mess, honest and working people all over the country are going to lose their jobs, savings and livelihoods. The film enters a fascinating moral debate as the faith some of these characters hold in the American economy is destroyed. Yes, they always knew that greed and stupidity were rife on Wall Street, but what they’re witnessing here is downright criminal!

The Big Short is a challenging film that pisses you off in the right way. As soon as the credits rolled I wanted to march straight over to the nearest bank and punch everyone there. This film handles its subject matter in just the right way to educate its audience and to invest them. Through clever writing and editing the film draws you into the ins and outs of this complicated yet deathly serious subject while managing to be interesting and entertaining. While The Wolf of Wall Street depicted the despicable and corrupt nature of the economic system by portraying its grotesque and deplorable characters in an exaggerated way, this film does it by educating its audience and then directly confronting the morals issues at stake. The Big Short is a compelling, funny, creative and, above all, an important film that is uncompromising in its candour and directness.

★★★★★

Foxcatcher

Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall

Director: Bennett Miller

Writers: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman


Until I saw the trailer for Foxcatcher I had never heard of John du Pont or of his crime. I never got round to looking him up so I walked into the film without knowing the particulars of his story, which in a way might be a good thing since I don’t like going into films with preconceived notions. What I ended up seeing was a staggering film about a deeply disturbed man and the traumatising ordeal he inflicted upon two brothers. Even now the thought of John du Pont with his cold gaze and unnerving voice frightens me. I have no idea how accurate the film’s account of the story or its portrayal of du Pont is but to speculate on that might be to miss the point. Maybe this film isn’t about du Pont or the Schultz brothers, but is instead a film that uses their tale to tell a story about, amongst other things, the quest for and the cost of greatness.

We are first introduced to the wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic Gold Medallist who is dissatisfied with his station in life. He goes to give a talk at an elementary school where the children plainly do not who he is and are not interested in what he has to say. He gets mistaken for his older brother David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) who is also a gold medal winning wrestler, an early indication of the shadow that Mark lives under. He lives in a small apartment where he eats cheap food and every day is an endless cycle of training with his brother and going home. Mark is dissatisfied with his present state because he believes himself to be less than what he could be. Mark is a man who aspires to greatness. He wants to be a champion. He wants to be a role model. He wants to be the best wrestler in the world.

Enter John du Pont, played by an unrecognisable Steve Carell, a multi-millionaire who appeals towards Mark’s aspirations by offering him the chance to join his Foxcatcher team along with the best resources and publicity that money can buy so that he might win the gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Mark sees this opportunity as the big break he has been waiting for. He accepts and tries to persuade his brother to do the same. David, in contrast to Mark, is completely satisfied with where he is and has no desire to seize this chance. He has a wife whom he loves, children that he adores, and a training routine that works for him. Mark, who feels that his own achievements are somehow less because he has always lived under his brother’s shadow, accepts this. He rushes over to the Foxcatcher estate, excited at the prospect of going at it on his own. However his time with John du Pont proves to be a traumatic experience.

John du Pont, like Mark Schultz, is a man who aspires towards greatness and he expects to receive it. He comes from a very wealthy background in which he grew up wanting for nothing. He’s used to getting whatever he wants whenever he wants it and has developed a strong sense of self-entitlement. When David Schultz rejects du Pont’s offer, du Pont is stunned. He doesn’t understand the prospect of not getting what he wants or the concept of a man who cannot be bought. Similarly he fully expects to become an Olympic level wrestling coach despite not having the knowledge nor the experience for it. He speaks about wanting to give America hope by providing them heroes to admire because that is how he wants people to see him. Du Pont wants to be regarded as the all-American hero. A great deal of du Pont’s insecurity stems from his relationship with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who has always been discouraging towards him, saying that she doesn’t like seeing him do “something low” like wrestling. This sort of dismay hurts du Pont and causes him to vent his anger onto those around him, particularly on Mark Schultz. Perhaps du Pont’s resentment towards Mark is on some level because he sees him as the man he wishes he could have been, but more likely is that he abuses Mark in order to make himself feel superior.

Wrestling is often viewed as an animalistic sport and there is a strong sense that John du Pont views the wrestlers under his employ as little more than beasts and himself as their master. He often treats Mark as if he were nothing more than a pet, striking him and talking down to him. Although Mark has developed a friendship with du Pont and has grown to view him as a father figure, his affection is rewarded with disdain and abuse. Du Pont is a man who wants to be revered and believes that he is entitled to reverence by those he deems inferior to himself. When David Schultz does join the team his indifference towards du Pont appears to have a grating effect. Whatever it was that drove du Pont to murder David shall always remain a matter of speculation but the film suggests that du Pont was maddened by the thought of someone who did not look up to him and who did not rely on him, not dissimilar to the way that his own mother regarded him.

In Foxcatcher Bennett Miller delivers a dark, disturbing story about the scarring effects of a man in pursuit of respect, love and greatness. When all is said and done Mark Schultz survives du Pont’s malice, but not intact. A part of Mark has been grievously damaged by du Pont’s abuse, perhaps beyond repair. Being treated as a beast has had a horrendous effect on him that he may never escape. When we see Mark Schultz competing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, perhaps it’s not a coincidence that his closing image is of him fighting in a cage. This film is as cold and as merciless as du Pont’s maliciousness and still gives me chills.

★★★★★