Saturday, June 22, 2019


Director: Neil Jordan
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Chloe Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore, Stephen Rea
Running Time: 98 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

It's not particularly easy to make an over-the-top suspense thriller like Greta without falling prey to some really dumb decisions for entertainment's sake. That writer/director Neil Jordan sidesteps a lot of them while managing to craft a tight, fairly efficient effort is an accomplishment considering the temptations to take shortcuts that have undermined so many mainstream entries like it. Of course, this isn't to say that dumb decisions aren't sometimes made, but they feel less like screenwriting contrivances than mistakes the lead character would make based upon what we learn of her. But better than that, Jordan has also cast three talented actresses who gamely juggle material that might elicit unintentional laughs in less capable hands.

At the risk of overpraising a film for merely managing to not mess up a good thing or embarrass anyone involved, there's still a great deal to be said for that, and reminding us that it isn't a prerequisite for all Hollywood thrillers to be brain dead. It simmers slowly, before piling on some complications that are pretty ridiculous without being entirely illogical. There are many points where you're sure the script's on the verge of deteriorating into a bad slasher before pulling back to make choices that aren't exactly unpredictable per se, but prove rewarding nonetheless. And in Chloe Moretz, they've found the perfect protagonist, her character's idealism quickly shattered when she lets her guard down, allowing us to join in her deer-in-headlights amazement at the quickly escalating craziness.

Frances McCullen (Moretz) is a young waitress living in New York City with her best friend, Erica Penn (Maika Monroe) while still coping with the death of her mother and strained relationship with her distant, workaholic father. Frequently rejecting Erica's offers to go out and loosen up, one day Frances finds a handbag left behind while riding on the subway. After discovering the bag belongs to a French woman named Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), she finds her address and delivers it in person. Extending her gratitude over coffee, Greta reveals she's a widowed piano teacher with a daughter living and studying in Paris. Soon, Frances begins spending time with this lonely, older woman, even helping her pick out a dog at the shelter.

Despite Erica's warnings that Frances is merely trying to fill the void left by her mother's passing, the two start spending a lot of time together, at least until Frances makes a chilling discovery that causes her to question Greta's true motivations. But when she tries to break it off, the calls and texts from Greta intensify, revealing her to be a seriously sick woman with more problems than Frances could have ever imagined. And she doesn't take rejection lightly, stalking Frances to the point of putting her life, as well as the lives of people she holds closest, in serious peril.

Without reinventing the wheel, Greta carries on the tradition of some of the more successful female-centric stalker films of the 90's such as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Misery, despite its narrative or asthetic never really dabbling in horror for its entire running length. Oscar-winner Jordan really takes his time setting everything up, firmly establishing the inner and outer lives of these two very different women who will undoubtedly be locking horns in the second half. The thrills come from watching the legendary Isabelle Hupert slowly unspool her antagonist's psychosis, taking Greta from being nice and harmless, to kooky, to a little clingy, until finally flying off the deep end.

The film is subtle until it isn't, correctly recognizing when to pull the trigger and embrace its craziness. We recognize this absurdity and go with it mainly due to the cativating match-up between Huppert and Moretz, which delivers every time they share the screen, aided by a script that contains clever nuggets like Greta terrorizing Frances and Erica with her flip phone. There comes a point in the story where we're sure we know where it's headed, but it toys with us a bit, keeping the body count almost shockingly low before saving most of its ammunition for an ambitious ending that plays with the roles of terrorists and victims. While still a potboiler that doesn't pretend to offer deep psychological meditation, it does gives its stalked leads a surprising amount of agency for a movie of its kind.

Acting opposite a force of nature in Huppert, Moretz also slowly takes Frances through the various stages of realizing she's in way over her head. Being a nice and naive may not be the most exciting of qualities for a thriller heroine, but we're with her and she's completely believable, as is Maika Monroe, who as Erica initially seems to be embodying the ultimate best friend cliche of airheaded party animal. But becuase of the actress's rising stock, you get the feeling there's more there, and that suspicion pays off, revealing her character to not only be the sole voice of reason, but possibly the film's most memorably relatable. You get the impresion that had Greta exclusively targeted her, it may not have been a fair fight. As a cat-and-mouse game capped with a clever Hitchcockian twist, Greta ends up equaling a little more than the sum of its parts, eventually revealing itself to be an entertaining throwback in the genre.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Cobra Kai (Season 2)

Creators: Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald
Starring: William Zabka, Ralph Macchio, Courtney Henggeler, Xolo Maridueña, Tanner Buchanan, Mary Mouser, Jacob Bertrand, Gianni Decenzo, Martin Kove
Release Date: 2019

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Reveals Some Key Plot Details From The First Two Seasons of 'Cobra Kai' **

When YouTube Premium's Karate Kid sequel series, Cobra Kai, premiered last year, the big shock wasn't it being far better than anyone expected, but in how it made you re-examine the original film with fresh eyes, now working with the knowledge of what would become of All Valley Karate rivals Daniel Larusso and Johnny Lawrence thirty years later. Jumping off a very good idea that the latter viewed himself as the bullied victim in his high school war with Daniel, creators Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald's introduced us to a present-day Johnny frozen in '84, unable to fully move past his biggest defeat. And despite the fact Daniel's married with two kids and running a successful car dealership, something's missing, as he still struggles to find his way without the guidance of Mr. Miyagi.

As good a starting point as this was, there were many ways it could have gone terribly wrong. If their characters seemed to be a betrayal of who they originally were or the creators failed to recognize how much more the actors were capable of, it all could have been a disaster, joining the pitiful ranks of other reboot and sequel hatchet jobs. This represents the polar opposite, as the team behind this series use every minute of  second chance to deepen our appreciation of the franchise, while successfully pushing it forward. 

Cobra Kai's Hawk, Johnny and Miguel
Reluctantly taking a young pupil under his wing and resurrecting the Cobra Kai dojo as an unlikely sensei training a group of misfits, we got the Johnny we never knew we needed. And watching him again go face-to-face with Daniel under different, but not entirely dissimilar circumstances, we're reminded just how they bring out both the best and worst in each other. their feud trickling down to the new generation of characters we've grown to care about just as much.

Coming off a suspenseful first season finale, Cobra Kai has proven thus far to be the template for resurrecting an already existing property, delivering a second season that's just as strong, if not stronger. It's accomplished this by expanding the show's universe, further developing the characters and capitalizing off last season's tournament showdown that not only ended with a shocking twist, but the return of an infamous figure from Johnny's past who could again prove to be his, and Daniel's, biggest threat. But the series' more lasting accomplishment is what it's done with the newer characters, whose arcs take yet another turn in this year's finale, topping any previous episode in terms of adrenaline and suspense. Forget about measuring up to the original's legacy. You could easily make a case that this show is already well on its way to surpassing it. 

When last season concluded Johnny (William Zabka) had accomplished his liftetime goal of bringing the first place All-Valley Under-18 Karate Championship Trophy "home" to Cobra Kai after training bullied teen Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) to victory over his own estranged son, Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan) in the final. But at what cost? With an injured Robby's new sensei, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) looking on, Miguel wins by employing the same mean streak and cheap tactics the Cobras were known for over thirty years ago, in the process driving away his girlfriend (and Daniel's daughter), Samantha (Mary Mouser).

Johnny gets a visit from an old friend
Now with a tainted trophy and a relationship with his son seemingly broken beyond repair, the first glimpses of true regret come over Johnny's face as he realizes the Cobra Kai mantra of "No Mercy" may have corrupted Miguel just as it had him years ago. But before that feeling can fully settle in, a shadowy figure appears at the door: Presumed dead sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove), the founding father of Cobra Kai who led Johnny to his greatest heights as a teen, before turning on him. Declaring himself a changed man, the Vietnam vet memorably humiliated by Mr. Myagi in the parking lot all those years ago, is just looking for a second chance, and hoping his former pupil will give it to him.

Much to wife Amanda's (Courtney Henggeler) chagrin, Daniel leaves most of the responsibilities at LaRusso Motors to her as he doubles down on his efforts to open Miyagi-do Karate, making his inaugural students Samantha and Robby, who's now moved in with the LaRussos as the teens grow closer. Miguel meanwhile forms a bond with new bad girl Cobra Kai recruit, Tory (Peyton List), who's also taken Sam's best friend Aisha (Nichole Brown) under her wing. The violent, agressive direction of the group has also caused a further rift between bullied nerd turned badass, Eli "Hawk" Moskowitz (Jacob Bertrand) and his neurotic pal Demetri (Gianni Decenzo). With all these conflicts building toward an explosion as summer comes to a close, Cobra Kai and Miyagi need to somehow co-exist, before Daniel and Johnny's continuous feud threatens to hurt those closest to them.

One of the biggest highlights of last season was seeing a middle-aged Johnny trying to function in the 21st century and discovering it's exactly as we thought. The drinking, music, sexism and xenophobia confirmed Daniel's former bully wouldn't have a softer edge, at least at first. But he was trying, and if his scenes teaching a new class saw him initially coming off as politically incorrect as possible, the thought of a returning and bitter Kreese being dropped into this environment is sort of terrifying, not to mention ripe with creative possibilities, many of which are still not even entirely exhausted by the season's end.

The manipulative Kreese (Martin Kove) returns
Zabka and Kove play off each other so well that we do actually want to believe Kreese is a changed man and the backstory given to explain his absence sheds further light on the unrepentant figure who made Daniel and Johnny's lives a living hell in different ways. But the writers trust its audience enough to know that he hasn't returned to play nice and peacefully co-exist with Johnny.

Something's up, and this season will at least partially be about this disgraced mentor slithering back into his life when he least needs him. And we get this, because for all the misery the original Cobra Kai brought Johnny as a kid, it still holds for him a soft spot in that it provided an escape from his miserable home life. Kreese knows that all too well, pushing the right nostalgia buttons in him to get his foot back in the door. Johnny may resent him, but still can't help but seek his ex-mentor's approval.

Just as compelling is Johnny's students' reactions to Kreese, whose return becomes the driving force behind much of this season's drama, allowing well-traveled character actor Kove to give a different, more nuanced take of his classic, but previously somewhat one-dimensional role. It isn't long before his and Johnnny's dueling philosophies about where Cobra Kai's been and where it should go start to clash, with their students caught in the middle. And no one seems more conflicted than Miguel, whose emerging mean streak at the end of last season caught everyone, especially Robby and Daniel, off guard. But it also took Johnny by surprise, reminding him what Cobra Kai, at its most brutal, really means, and whether that's a road he ever wants to travel down again.

Some of Zabka's very best scenes again revolve around Johnny simultaneously trying to both relive and escape his past, coming to terms with his mistakes and attempting to be "the bigger man" by not getting sucked back into his feud with Daniel. Whether that's reuniting with his original Cobra teammates Bobby, Tommy and Jimmy (actors Ron Thomas, Rob Garrison and Tony O'Dell reprising their roles) for an emotional joyride, figuring out how to use a laptop or a dating app, or having a really awkward dinner with Daniel and Amanda, Johnny's impossible to dislike because we hold out hope he'll eventually get his act together. For the show's sake, it's probably the last thing we should want, but can't help ourselves because Zabka's so good at making us root for his redemption.      

Miyagi-do's Robby, Sam and Daniel
While not on as tumultuous a journey as Johnny, Daniel's determination to get Miyagi-do off the ground is as much planted in his fear of failing his late mentor as it is sticking it to his longtime rival. It's ironic that in trying so hard to live up to the Miyagi legacy, Daniel's training scenes with daughter Sam and temporary houseguest Robby end up being the most repetitive of the season until an influx of new recruits come in and join them,and Cobra Kai takes the feud to a whole new level of personal.

That there's more at stake with Sam and Robby's personal relationship than in Daniel's quest to carry on Miyagi's teachings is kind of the point since it's through his connection to the Larussos that Robby's able to momentarily shed his badboy reputation as Johnny's son. His Cobra Kai nemesis, Miguel, appears to also be on the edge of redemption until Tory enters the picture, tempting him in the worst of ways with a mean streak of her own.That we care as much about this high school rivalry as much as the one still raging between the two adult characters speaks to the writing and performances from Maridueña, Buchanan, Mouser and series newcomer, Peyton List. Really, the feuds become one in the same.

Tory and Sam's climactic face off in Ep. 2.10, ("No Mercy"')
Although Johnny resists Kreese's desire to bring merciless vengeance back to the dojo he founded, his reappearance gives Daniel another reason for justifying his contempt for all things Johnny Lawrence. And after undergoing one of the more drastic transformations last season, Jacob Bertrand's Hawk plays an even bigger role this time around, soon embodying Kreese's ruthless philosophies by becoming the very thing that forced him to adopt this persona, going so far as to turn on his closest friend (despite Demetri's crippling neurosis being the season's only grating element).

Daniel vs. Johnny. Miguel vs. Robby. Sam vs. Tory. Hawk vs. Demetri. Johnny vs. Kreese. Cobra Kai vs. Miyagi-do. All these feuds simmer throughout the season, before finally exploding in a school-set brawl that can best be described as the show's finest 20 minutes, both in terms of storytelling and martial arts choreography, ending with a shocking event that brings these characters the closest they've come to full-on tragedy. Shaking the show's foundation, it's a culminating moment that can be traced to the previous nineteen episodes, while also working as a logical fallout to last season's closer, setting the table perfectly for Season 3.

Johnny at a crossroads
The defining event finds Johnny back at perhaps an even darker, sadder place than when he was initially reintroduced, opening up a whole new set of possibilities for where his feud with Daniel could go, or even whether it should continue. While hints have been dropped since the beginning, the writers also lean even further into teasing a potential return many probably didn't think was possible when this story began, or rather began again, for these characters. It's basically the final piece of the puzzle fans have been clamoring for. And now that the timing feels completely right for this exciting development, there's good reason to believe it will be handled as expertly as everything else. It's a deserved show of faith for a series that's proven how little interest it has in merely delivering a glorified reunion.      

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Director: Joe Berlinger
Starring: Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Angela Sarafyan, Dylan Baker, Brian Geraghty, Terry Kinney, Haley Joel Osment, James Hetfield, Grace Victoria Cox, Jim Parsons
Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The observation that notorious serial killer Ted Bundy "seemed like such a nice, regular guy" or "the last person you'd suspect" has almost become a cliché. We've heard it so many times, from both those who remember his murderous rampage when it happened, and even from a future generation exposed to him through documentaries like Joe Berlinger's Netflix's Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. But in adapting his own documentary into the feature, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Berlinger takes a route few filmmakers have in trying to bring Bundy's depravity to the screen. He casts an actor entirely known for and defined by his affable charm and looks. And he doesn't ask him to trade on them, play it with a wink, or even give so much as the subtlest hint that he's a psychopathic monster.

When Zac Efron was selected to play Bundy the conversation didn't revolve around whether the somewhat unproven actor had the chops or could handle material this dark. That would remain to be seen while we wrestled with the bigger question of whether it was the most obvious of stunt casting. Well, it's not. The film has some problems that prevent him from going to the places he likely imagined he would, but he rises to the challenge anyway, making for a chilling Bundy by just simply being present and not trying too hard. At points, he even bares a surprising physical resemblance to the late killer, and it's to Berlinger's credit that Efron never rests on it, as both legitimately attempt to distinguish this film from the director's own superior documentary in ways both good and bad.

While this doesn't come close to equaling the raw power of the non-fictional account, that's expected when you're competing with footage of the real Bundy defending himself in court in what would be the nation's first televised trial and media circus. And that's just one of the many bizarre developments that are dramatized here, somehow supplementing our already existing knowledge of actual events. So Berlinger shifts our entry point, heavily focusing on Ted's relationship with his ex-wife, until he doesn't, before managing to circle back to it again. Keeping us at arm's length, this won't be confused with Zodiac or Netflix's own Mindhunter in terms of criminal psychology or quality. But as an overview of Bundy's crimes, it works just well enough, mostly due to that skillfull lead performance.

When aspiring lawyer Ted Bundy (Efron) meets college student and single mother, Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) at a Seattle bar in 1969, it's pretty much love at first sight for both. Liz's only concern is his potential reaction to the fact she has a daughter, which proves to be a non-factor when Ted is not only accepting of this revelation, but overjoyed to the point that he soon moves in with them. As they grow closer, news reports flood in about the murders of multiple young women at Lake Sammamish, with witnesses placing a young man resembling Ted's decription at the scene. After the release of a police composite sketch and some phone tips, he's arrested in 1975, even as he complains about it being a huge misunderstanding. The excuses ring hollow when he's positively identified by one of his victims in court, resulting in a 15-year sentence at Utah State Prison.  But before he can serve it, he's transferred to Colorado in 1977, where he's charged with the murder of Caryn Campbell. Unfortunately, that's just the beginning. 

Wrestling with the guilt and denial that her husband's a serial killer, Liz turns to alcohol to numb the pain, while a sideshow of unprecedented proportions play out in both the media and courtroom, as Ted not only manages to escape due to police incompetence, but somehow claim more victims. In an embarassing spectacle, he mocks the judicial system by serving as his own trial attorney, and envelopes another young woman in his web of deceit, reconnecting with Carol Anne Boone (Kaya Scoledario), an old law school friend who's obsessed with Ted, arriving in Florida to fight for his acquittal and act as his media spokesperson. As the public's fixation on Bundy continues long after his trial, Liz still must come to grips with the fact she married a monster. But to fully let go, she may need to have one final confrontation with the man she thought she knew.

Both as a dramatic story and matter of public record, Ted Bundy's case ranks among the strangest in true crime. And not just because of how he looked and came off since any psychiatrist who spent more than a few minutes with him knew they were in the presence of a sick sociopath. It's the details of the case that prove to be so mind-blowing and Berlinger cherry picks the biggest, most memorable moments of his documentary series and successfully dramatizes them here.

The script hits key events like Ted's two (!) improbable escapes from police custody, the failure of authorities across multiple states to successfully capture, or even identify, America's most wanted fugitive, press-hungry Florida Sheriff Ken Katsaris' (Kevin McClatchy) public humiliation of Ted on live TV, and the incredible speech delivered by Judge Edward Cowart (John Malkovich), inspiring  the film's title. It's strange hearing the Malkovich deliver it, temporarily forgoing his usual biting, sacastic tone for an excursion into sincerity and profound disappointment. It's a testament to the documentary's power that even an actor of his caliber can't match the footage of Cowart delivering it.

Berlinger pretty much abandons the device of telling this story from Liz's point of view once the trial starts, almost completely marginalizing Collins' role. She's a smokescreen for what ultimately becomes the Ted Bundy Show, as Efron takes full advantage of some of the killer's bigger showboating moments, with a courthouse packed with swooning young girls trying to get a glimpse of Ted as if he was a rock star. 

If smaller, supporting roles like Haley Joel Osment's as Liz's co-worker and Jim Parsons' as a prosecuting attorney don't seem to add much as a whole, there is one that the movie gets completely right. Even with barely a handful of scenes, the eccentric, somewhat terrifyingly bespeckled Carol Anne Boone is perfectly realized by Kaya Scoledario, capturing every unnerving physical and psychological detail of her creepy obsession with Ted. Those searching for a mirror into the public's fascination with this man and his crimes need not look any further than her desperate, vacant eyes.

In many ways, the film might best be remembered for what isn't included. Most notably, the actual crimes. Berlinger makes what must have been a very concious decision not to show anything, relying instead on news clips and audio recordings to convey the horror of these killings. With one very brief exception, it's left to our imagination how he gained his victims' trust and lured them in, or the discomfort and eventual terror they must have felt in his presence. While there's always a fear of exploitation in bringing true life tragedies to the screen, it can sometimes be equally insulting not to show anything, or appear to be brushing it under the rug.

No one "wants" to see a graphic reenactment of Bundy's crimes, but the decision to encapsulate them news report or documentary style is equally questionable, often relegating his victims to statistics instead of real people with lives and families. And yet it's easy understanding Berlinger's resistance in showing anything, at least for the sake of stopping Efron from veering into Dexter territory, alternating between his "normal" life and dark hobby as a serial killer. The best thing about his work is how it doesn't fall prey to any of that, giving no glimpses into his poisoned soul as he effortlessly plays us just as Ted did Liz.

After seeing Extremely Wicked, you'll still have a tough time remembering the names of any victims, and not just because we hardly see a single killing. Instead, the film seems intent on serving up a social warning that's just as timely now, while doing little to dispel notion that the media is more than willing to make celebrities out of killers looking for their 15 minutes. Thirty years after being put to death, Bundy's still extending his.

Sunday, May 12, 2019


Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Jesse Plemons, Justin Kirk, Shea Whigham
Running Time: 132 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Whenever a biopic is released on a controversial public figure from either past or present, our favorite conversation is restarted about how fair and accurate the treatment of said subject will be. Strangely enough, the more polarizing they are, the higher standard the filmmakers seem to be held to. Will it be a hatchet job or an overly sympathetic portrayal that humanizes their irredeemable actions? Maybe a balanced mix of both? Depending upon who you ask, Steve Jobs was either vilified as a soulless monster in Danny Boyle's Jobs or was let off the hook too easily. Mark Zuckerberg was a meglomaniacal antisocial parasite in The Social Network, or if you prefer, simply a shy, ambitious genius who developed a web site to impress a girl. Oliver Stone's W., signaled what many believed was the neutering of a once great filmmaker who failed to go for the jugular in depicting a ripe for skewering Bush 43 as he exited office. Now, writer/director Adam McKay makes up for that with Vice, a movie unlikely to spark any of those conversations since he leaves so little room for debate about how Bush's V.P., Dick Cheney, should be viewed.

On an evilness scale, Vice's rendering of Cheney lands somewhere between Hitler and Darth Vader, with a little Grinch thrown in for good measure. Without holding back, McKay unloads on his target with a contempt only momentarily tempered by his excursions into satiric silliness that end up making Cheney look that much worse by mocking him. And like his simarly topical The Big Short, it's done in trademark McKay style, jumping back and forth through time, breaking the third wall, and telling as much as it's showing. From a cinematic standpoint, it's a total mess, with a few endings too many and a tendency to treat its audience like simpletons.

For those who already despise Cheney, this preaches to the choir, even if those on the fence will gladly jump on the bandwagon once they get the film's take on what he's done. His supporters will be fuming, citing it as the latest example of the Hollywood liberal elite run amok. And they're not necessarily wrong, since this is about as one-sided an attack as it gets. But boy is it entertaining, taking risks few political dramas or comedies have attempted, much less gotten away with. It doesn't all connect, but when it does, it's pretty vicious. 

Pinning down exactly when the story of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) begins and ends is no easy task, but it speaks volumes that one of the the first glimpses we get of the future Vice President is as a young man drunkenly stumbling out of his car after being pulled over by Wyoming police in 1963. The journey that takes him from that moment to the brief opening scene of him responding to the 9/11 attacks can be traced back to his relationship with power-hungry wife, Lynn (Amy Adams), the mastermind behind his eventual ascent.

It's Lynn's ultimatum toYale dropout Dick to shape up or get out that leads him to D.C.,working as an intern for outspoken economic advisor Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) in the Nixon administration. After Watergate and Nixon's resignation, Cheney rises to the position of Chief of Staff under President Ford, then as Secretary of Defense under Bush 41. Heart problems and a stint as Halliburton C.E.O. come after, and while the movie makes it very clear that his story could have easily ended there, it doesn't. His most infamous chapter follows with a stint as Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), leading to Cheney's emergence as a manipulative Washington puppet master. With his tentacles extending to even the most controversial foreign policy decisions and in worsening health, he covertly spearheads an administration many believe left a trail of death and destruction in its wake.   

While it's all a bit too much to take in with McKay rarely bothering to even feign any sense of objectivity in delivering what often plays as Oliver Stone and Michael Moore's cinematic love child, it's at least tied together by an undeniably fascinating and controversial idea. The Unitary Executive Theory is the principle by which Cheney seems to live and breathe, and is firmly rooted in the belief that the President is invested with the power to control the entire executive branch. If some believe should be a limit or check on the extent of it, Cheney's not one of them, and in carrying out the duties of the Vice Presidency, he demonstrates what can happen when you extend that constitutional theory as far as possible, then wield it like a club. After stretches of cloaking every event of the script in this power-hungry outlook, it becomes clear that McKay wants you to believe Cheney's tenure as Vice, his marriage, ambitions, relationship with his daughters, and ultimately, his life, are all driven by this conceit.

McKay unequivocally succeeds at depicting this worldview, while also making excellent use of an unknown narrator named Kurt (Jesse Plemons), who we're told has some kind of relationship to Cheney that's cleverly kept under wraps until the film's final minutes, paying off in a major way. Some may find that to be the story's real hook, if not for Bale's rightfully heralded performance, which manages to do something the film itself only rarely manages to: humanize him. And simultaneously demonize him. With a massive weight gain and prosthetics, he not only looks the part (complete with a scary facial resemblance), but really understands it, even in places where the screenplay seems to be mocking every facet of his ideology.

Bale conveys this urgency in the man to plow forward because somewhere along the way, be it from Rumsfeld or his wife, it was drilled into him that history is written by the winners. This path replaces alcohol as his addiction, but like most, he's only as good or bad as who's surrounding him. While it's become sort of a running joke to guess which supporting role Amy Adams will be annually nominated for and lose, her work as Lynn Cheney ranks amongst the strongest in that regard, kind of an expanded version of the ice cold character she played opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master, albeit even more outrightly devious and controlling. In other words, she's living proof that behind every successful man is a woman. And the (fantasy?) scene where they recite Shakespeare to each other is really a keeper.

Despite earning a nomination himself for this, Sam Rockwell provides what essentially amounts to amounts to an SNL characterization of George W. Bush. Whether or not that's McKay's intention (and it's easy to believe so), it might be the only element in the film that plays as an all-out comedic farce. Depicting Bush 43 a moronic bumbling drunk who can't spell his own name or tie his shoes is undeniably low-hanging fruit, but it also seems very dated, more in line with something we'd see on some sketch show a decade prior. Is that the point? Either way, it begs the question of what time and distance has done to our percetion of his Presidency. Often, it's tough to tell if the movie's in on its own jokes or not, as Rockwell's portrayal is basically everything Josh Brolin resisted doing in W. 

Less broadly comedic is Carell's performance as Donald Rumsfeld, who ends up as kind of a tragic figure of sorts after his maniacal mentoring of Cheney. A little goofy, but smart and impulsive, Carell strikes just the right chord, making you wish he had an even more screen time. Tyler Perry shows up as Colin Powell, an uncredited Naomi Watts cameos as a FOX News-like anchor, along with nearly half a dozen "blink and you'll miss it" appearances from various actors as figures like Gerald Ford, Condoleezza Rice, Henry Kissinger and Roger Ailes.

If there were any lingering doubts as to how you're supposed to feel about Dick Cheney, McKay very proudly posts his reminders at every turn that you better hate him! And if you don't, he'll make sure you will by the time Vice ends. Unfortunately, that end point isn't exactly clear since a moment arrives late in the third act that seems to signal a perfectly logical conclusion, yet he keeps going, missing the opportunity to close on a single, powerful image that perfectly encapsulates his subject's life.

Even after an ailing Cheney is fighting to take his last breath due to heart problems and waiting on an eleventh hour miracle, the movie manages to get more shots in. Is this supposed to be the most one-sided of poltical takedowns? Or is it a spoof of one-sided political takdowns? We may never know, but with Cheney's legacy sealed, he gets a film as messy, muddled and confounding as he is, succeeding most at turning him into a bigger showman than he could have ever hoped to be.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Green Book

Director: Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Dimiter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton, Iqbal Theba, Sebastian Maniscalco, Von Lewis
Running Time: 130 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

If you're going to make a film set in the past or present that in any way touches on the issue of racism, it's best to prepare yourself. Make sure you have all your bases covered, do your homework, insure there aren't any inaccuracies and brace for the inevitable backlash. What the backlash will be or why it exists may as well be anyone's guess, but when you tackle a topic as sensitive as this and it's based on a true story, at least some controversy is inevitable. Peter Farrelly found this out the hard way upon signing on to co-write and direct Green Book, a film detailing the bond that develops between a renowned African-American  pianist and an Italian bouncer when the latter serves as the musician's driver and bodyguard for his 1962 Deep South concert tour.

Covering a shameful part of U.S. history while keeping a relatively light tone in the face of its deadly serious subject matter was enough to raise eyebrows in a year that saw Black Panther and BlackKklansman nominated for Best Picture. That it was made by the director of Dumb and Dumber  and drew comparisons to Driving Miss Daisy would seem to be the final straw, until it actually won the top prize on Oscar night, defeating films considered more progressive and a better indication of where we're culturally headed. If rumors are true, Farrelly's picture turns back the clock to when Hollywood was only capable of telling the stories of black people through white characters, and a show of support is akin to a vote for the establishment.

Of course, none of these aforementioned points have anything to do with the movie Green Book. and when you actually sit down to watch it, that all turns into background noise. It's not that the controversy should be casually dismissed, but rather it becomes a major distraction when trying to form even the most subjective opinions on the film. That it's inspired this much debate is a credit to the picture, but eventually you reach a place where even that needs to be shelved in order to examine what's directly in front of you. Some may wonder what all the fuss was about, as the most noteworthy thing about it just might be how competently made and inoffensive it is.

Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a New York City bouncer working at the Copacabana when he gets word that the nightclub is temporarily closing for renovations and he'll need to find a paying job for the next couple of months in order to continue providing for his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and their young kids. So when a call goes out looking for a driver, Tony arrives for an interview above Carnegie Hall to meet a man referred to as "Doc." The doc in question is African American pianist, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who's looking for a driver and bodyguard for his eight-week concert tour through the Midwest and Deep South.

Hailing from what seem like entirely different worlds, the refined, cultured musician hires the tough talking Italian from the Bronx, with the record label supplying Tony with a copy of the Green Book, a guide specifically detailing all the motels, restaurants and gas stations that will serve African Americans. They clash almost immediately as the awkwardness of the foul-mouthed, bigoted Tony cheuffering a highly educated black man through the Deep South in the '60's is matched only by their wildly differing dispositions. But as the trip progresses, they start to find a common ground, as Tony is impressed by Don's talent as a musician while simultaneously being appalled at the treatment he receives by the racist white audiences he performs for.

If plenty of comparisons have already been made to a reverse Driving Miss Daisy in terms of both plot and tone, the road trip aspect of the story actually comes closer to recalling Planes, Trains and Automobiles, minus the two former means of transportation. There are many moments and extended sequences that tackle the racism Don faces at nearly every stop, but a lot of the picture frequently consists of scenes of them arguing and offending each another, like a bickering odd couple of sorts. It's here where the script does actually resemble a more traditional Farrelly project, even if no one would ever think to confuse it with a conventional comedy.

That those scenes co-exist alongside more unnerving ones involving racism in which Don is bailed out of potentially volatile situations by Tony have lead to complaints about this being the latest example of Hollywood's "white guilt," or perceived inability to tell stories about African American characters unless it's filtered through the heroics of some kind of white savior. But that doesn't seem fair in this case since this is one of those rare cinematic interpretations of "true events" (co-written by Tony Vallelonga's son Nick) that gets most of its facts right, to the point that it was even approved by the two protagonists before their recent passings. And despite recent complaints from Don Shirley's family that their relationship to him was misrepresented or accusations that Don's homosexuality is brushed under the rug, neither of those issues seem particularly relevant to the film or what it's about. Especially the former, which isn't even really addressed enough to warrant such a negative reaction.

Through Mahershala Ali's performance, we recognize that this a story as much about identity as race, with Don having earned the respect of white society as a musician of considerable talent, worthy of playing their parties if only so they can feel more cultured and refined. But the second that playing ends, it's clear he hasn't earned that respect from them as a human being because of the color of his skin. He can't eat at the restaurants where he performs or use their bathrooms, and he also feels like an outsider at the predominantly black "Green Book" motels at which he stays since his station in life differs so drastically from theirs.

Everything from Ali's posture, to how succinctly he speaks each word is not only meant to reflect an individual with impeccable class and intelligence, but someone repressed and hurt enough to use it as an armor to deflect the prejudice he encounters. Playing Don as outwardly cool and composed, Ali just barely lets us see through the cracks to the suffering, which makes it all the more difficult to watch. Tony has no identity crisis, as he's unapologetically himself in the most blunt, abrasive way possible, often to his own detriment.

Tony's bigotry comes mostly from ignorance, but even he has to draw the line when he sees how disrespected his boss is, accurately assessing that if Don is permitted to perform in these establishments, it's insane that he's forbidden to sit and eat there. Transforming himself by adding more than a few extra pounds and a Bronx accent, Mortensen's portrayal of Tony is definitely one of his more entertaining turns if only because we've never seen  the actor, who's known for darker, more intense roles, tackle anything so over-the-top before. He becomes the perfect foil for the more subdued Ali, who feels more like the film's true lead, regardless of how they were categorized during awards season.

That most were ready to tear this effort to shreds sight unseen doesn't mean it isn't still a fairly predictable, crowd-pleasing picture that recalls a simpler time in Hollywood when no one was afraid to rock anyone's boat when handling potentially delicate material. Farrelly doesn't take risks or push any buttons in delivering a satisfying, heartwarming story that confronts racism, sometimes powerfully. And while most of that power comes from the performances, the one thing that's been lost in the conversation is the film's actual quality, which will ultimately have the final say in determining how well or poorly Green Book will age. Even if the reaction it's garnered may build the best argument yet for the Best Picture Oscar as a snapshot of the year in which it was released. For better or worse.  

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Creed II

Director: Steven Caple Jr.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu, Phylicia Rashad, Wood Harris, Andre Ward, Brigitte Nielsen, Milo Ventimiglia, Russell Hornsby
Running Time: 130 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)
When Ryan Coogler's Creed was released in 2015, it was just the shot of adrenaline the ailing Rocky franchise needed, yielding results even better than anyone expected. Just the very idea to center the film around Apollo Creed's son and have him trained by his late father's friend and foe Rocky Balboa was inspired. Casting Michael B. Jordan as the lead opposite Sylvester Stallone was ingenious. It presented all these new, exciting possibilities, and more amazingly, followed through on them, erasing memories of the inferior sequels that brought shame and even occasional embarrassment to the series. More importantly, Creed didn't feel like a Rocky film, and yet in many ways when it mattered most, it did, reconnecting us to what we loved most about these movies and bringing a sense of renewed purpose to Stallone's role. His Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, and the deflated looks of disappointment we saw in that room when he lost, stands as proof.

The justifiable acclaim only solidified the inevitability of sequels, and with that would always come the risk that the franchise could settle back into its predictable rhythm. So when Coogler bowed out of this to make a little movie with Jordan called Black Panther, it seemed our worst suspicions that the series would host a revolving door of directors lacking a distinct vision, were about to be confirmed. But with the foundation already laid, Steven Caple Jr.'s Creed II successfully picks up where we left off, and while it does follow a familar formula and lacks some of the previous film's freshness and energy, it's a worthy successor.

In again drawing heavily from the Rocky legacy (this time Rocky IV) to jumpstart a new story, it's at least one worth telling, featuring a villainous return fans of the franchise can legitimately claim they've waited decades for. Despite good reason for concern moving forward, this one works because the personal nature of the story and a continued emphasis on the relationship between the main characters that's been carried over from the first entry.

Three years after his loss to "Pretty" Ricky Conlan, Adonis Creed (Jordan) has amassed enough victories to earn a shot at the WBC World Heavyweight Championship, which he wins from Danny "Stuntman" Wheeler. On top of the boxing world and a major star, Adonis proposes to girlfriend Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson) who agrees to marry him while suggesting they move out to the West Coast  to start their new lives together. Hesitant to leave his hometown of Philadelphia, as well his trainer and mentor Rocky Balboa (Stallone), Adonis has a ferocious new challenger looking for a shot in Viktor Drago (Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu).

Viktor's been trained and groomed from an early age as a fighting machine by his father, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who killed Adonis' dad, Apollo Creed, in the ring over thirty years earlier before being defeated by Rocky in Moscow. Disgraced by his home country in the years since that humiliating defeat, Ivan hopes that through Viktor he can earn some measure of redemption, and even possibly some respect from well-off ex-wife Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen). But Adonis' reasons for taking the fight is what worries Rocky, Bianca and his stepmother and Apollo's widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). With the self-imposed pressure of  avenging his father's death, Adonis enters the ring with one thing in mind: revenge. And Viktor smells blood. 

It's probably not a good sign for the protagonist that the "big fight" around which the entire axis of this installment revolves occurs within the first 45 minutes of the picture. The build-up to it is quite impressive as the screenplay makes a legitimate case that Adonis could get killed in the ring just as his father did, only this time at the hands of the younger Drago. It also helps that there's an over thirty year backstory to draw from that comes from one of the more beloved entries in the series. If not neccessarily a great film, Rocky IV is nothing if not memorably entertaining due to the presence of a larger-than-life, almost cartoonish adversary in Ivan Drago, so it makes perfect sense to try to recapture that magic for the first Creed sequel.

As a character, Drago's son, like many of the opponents in adversaries in both franchises is kind of a wet blanket, but at least he's given a purpose through his father's quest for redemption. And similarly to how we were treated to a really compelling "where are they now?" in last year's Karate Kid sequel series, it's great to see Lundgren return to the role that made him. Playing Drago as a bitter, pitiable man living through his adult son, he's still somehow reeeling from the loss dealt to him by Rocky all these years later, and that feels just about right.  But as well developed as the villainous side of the equation is, the movie's bread is still buttered with the internal struggle of Adonis reconciling his father's death and finding out who he is the hard way.

It's not a spoiler to reveal his title defense against Viktor is a disaster that breaks him mentally and physically, challenging not only his will to continue boxing, but the important relationships in his life as well. While his bond with Bianca (Thompson, great again) faces some serious obstacles accompanied by euphoric highs, it's his friendship with Rocky that's most tested. He doesn't want his protege fighting this guy for glaringly obvious reasons, but an added element is that he doesn't believe Adonis' head is in the right place. It'll be up to both of them to get it there. Ironically enough, the movie soars highest when entering familar fomulaic territory, leaning into the franchise tenants of training montages and personal redemption. One advanatge the Creed films undoubtedly have over what came before it is the realism and authenticity of the boxing scenes, which are electrifyingly staged and suprisingly suspenseful, especially considering both fight outcomes in this aren't exactly in doubt.

Against all better judgment, we're hooked, mainly because the dynamic Michael B. Jordan has taken us on a journey with this character, infusing Adonis with a determination, anger and sensitivity that matches, if not surpasses, anything we've previously seen in the Rocky films. When his body and spirit are seemingly shattered, it's Stallone's character who continues to be properly positioned opposite him, playing on all the strengths he brought as a lead, but in a more appropriate supporting role that reminds us how formidable a presence he can be on screen. While not exactly surprises, brief but impactful appearances by Nielsen and Milo Ventimiglia as Rocky's estranged son Robert are seamlessly incorporated, the latter benefitting from being a bigger star now than when he appeared in the forgettable slog that was 2006's Rocky Balboa.

Making his feature directorial debut, Steven Caple Jr. deserves credit for not only avoiding to screw up a good thing, but doing right by these characters and the series, which now seems poised for yet another outing. But any Creed sequel, while completely expected, was still far from a guarantee to work. While no real risks are taken and Caple plays it as safe as possible within the confines of a very predictable formula, that was undeniably the right route to take here. If we get another film that shakes out identically to these first two, then we can start talking about the possibility of audiences tiring of it and re-experiencing the fatigue associated with the Rocky series. Until then it's best to enjoy the ride since Creed II has very little worth complaining about, delivering more than enough to please both casual and diehard fans alike.       

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Front Runner

Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Sara Paxton, Mamoudou Athie, Kaitlyn Dever, Toby Huss, Molly Ephraim, Steve Zissis, Spencer Garrett, Ari Graynor, Bill Burr, Mike Judge, Kevin Pollack, Mark O' Brien
Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Does it matter? That's the question at the center of Jason Reitman's The Front Runner, which details Senator Gary Hart's unsuccessful 1988 Presidential bid. At one point not only a lock for the nod, but seemingly the White House, all of Hart's political ambitions came crashing down in the span of merely three weeks. Young, good-looking, charismatic and full of fresh ideas, his campaign was derailed because he had an ex-marital affair. But that wasn't the story. The real story was that it was the first time anyone bothered to care. The media. The public. His colleagues. For the previous 200 years, politicians got free passes in their private lives, which remained just that: private. Hart's timing was terrible, his ascent having arrived on the precipice of a major sea change in our culture that's carried over into today: when news became entertainment.

Hart felt the wrath when character and trustworthiness in our public figures suddenly became an issue and the press realized they could make bank exposing it. In other words, he really stepped in it and the way he reacted, or rather didn't, circles back to that question of whether a public figure's private business should really matter, and whether that matters when he's a politician seeking the highest office in the land. It's a question we're still wrestling with and one Reitman thoroughly examines here with surprising insight and objectivity.

After losing the 1984 Democratic Presidential nomination to Walter Mondale, idealistic, rejuvenated Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) returns four years later, entering the 1988 race, quickly becoming the front runner to earn the nomination that earlier alluded him. With wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever) in his corner, Hart seems to be the ideal family values candidate, telling it like it is and promising to put the people and country first. There's only one problem: his marriage. Or more specifically, an affair he's having with a Florida-based model named Donna Shaw (Sara Paxton), whose best friend tips off Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) about their secret excursions.

With Washington Post's A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie) also cornering Hart about his extracurricular activities in an interview, the senator becomes defensive as ever, lashing out at anyone daring to bring up his personal life. But he's in trouble, and despite loyal supporters like hard-nosed campaign manager (Bill Dixon) and scheduler Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) telling him otherwise, Hart stubbornly stays the course, even as the media has a field day exposing his transgressions. Unfortunately, the only course he's now headed on would seem to lead toward political infamy and embarassment rather than the White House.

Reitman's casting of Hugh Jackman as the embattled senator is meant to convey something that perhaps another actor in the role wouldn't. Despite what you may have seen or read about Hart or any of the paralells between him and Jackman as far as their likability, charisma, or ability to hold an audience, they're worlds apart. And if we're going strictly on appearance, they actually look nothing alike. The choice is clearly meant to idealize both Hart himself and his campaign, but it works. It's as if the producers asked themselves which actor would make the senator look ten times better than he actually was, which isn't to say he wasn't a strong candidate in reality. But in Jackman's shoes, he manages to seem even better and more trustworthy. How could you not vote for this guy? And that makes his eventual collapse all the more disappointing and symbolic.

While we expect Jackman would excel at playing a baby-kissing, family-oriented man of the people, what he best captures is Hart's hubris. His complete disbelief that anyone would want to talk about  his personal life instead of the issues or the country. He's also personally offended, demanding that what he does on his own time is off limits without exception. In one sense, his idealism is commendable, but it's also becoming increasingly unrealistic, shading him as an entitled egomaniac. It's the push and pull between the two sides of this man's character, or sometimes lack thereof, that make for such a compelling implosion.  His failure to grasp that nothing is off limits anymore and how that leads to his undoing is what makes the picture engaging, despite an opening half hour that lures us into thinking we're watching a dry political docudrama.

One of the best scenes occur between Jackman and J.K. Simmons' as Hart's campaign manager, who attempts to convince him that, morals and fairness aside, the coverage of the scandal is quickly eating away at everything he and his staffers have been working for. Of course, it falls on deaf ears as Hart continually refuses to acknowledge its existence and plows forward, rewriting his speeches while dismissing the allegations so flippantly that it gives a whole new inflexible meaning to the phrase "staying on topic."

There's never a moment of self-reflection, even when being followed and ambushed outside his D.C. residence, camera in his face while questions are being fired. Yet as unlikable as he is and how little remorse he seems to show, Hart still makes a valid point that if we used this criteria to judge our leaders we wouldn't have had a Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy, both of whom were serial womanizers in an era where their indiscretions were protected. Why should he be treated any differently? The answer's simple: he's entered a different era.

If Hart has a rough time adjusting to this paradigm shift, the media has just as difficult a time figuring out how to handle it. And it's here where some of the accusations that Reitman didn't dig deep enough or just grazed the surface of the story's implications don't hold water. He takes us inside these newsrooms showing how they struggle and debate the merits of covering this, and how. Some, like Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina), are all in, while trepidatious Post reporter A.J. Parker's guilt at exposing Hart is pitted against his equally strong moral sense of responsibility as a journalist.

In a cast loaded with valuable utility players, few make as strong an impression as Molly Ephraim as the fictional Irene Kelly, a political handler who now must handle the "other woman" in the scandal, Donna Shaw. In doing this, she realizes that aside from the young woman's naivete and poor judgment, she'll be a casualty. The senator will suffer the political fallout but the scandal will follow her wherever she goes after she's dragged through the mud by the media and Hart's team. She's not as strong as Vera Farmiga's more hardened Lee Hart,  putting on a tough public face to shield herself and daughter Andrea from the humiliation her husband's actions caused, only confirming what she suspected of him all along.

At its core, The Front Runner is a process picture, and while it won't anytime soon be confused with the likes of All The President's Men or Zodiac as far as how deep or skillfully it takes us into the newsroom, it makes for an effective snapshot of a little discussed turning point for American politics and in our culture. The true events dramatized in the former film heavily played into what would eventually take down Gary Hart. Post-Watergate, everyone in the press wanted to be crusaders, and found their perfect vehicle with this candidate, who didn't exactly do himself any favors with his actions, regardless of how much luckier his predecessors may have been. It's one thing to apologize, but it's another entirely to apologize for getting caught.