by Philip Price
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz & Jennifer Connelly
Runtime: 2 hours & 2 minutes
Though a fan of science fiction I'm not familiar with Yukito Kishiro's 1990 manga comic Battle Angel Alita that inspired the latest Robert Rodriguez picture as produced by James Cameron. I'll clarify that I truly enjoy science fiction largely for the genre's ability, whether it be in the writing or when translated to the big screen-the concept artist, director, or costume and set designers-ability to create a new environment and/or new world's altogether. Further, to apply a structure to this environment where an advanced, and if not advanced at least futuristic society, exists where the world follows the rules of this implemented structure is inherently fascinating as it undoubtedly takes cues from our present world and applies what the creator might think will be to the human races benefit or ultimate detriment. Such prophecies within the genre over the years have created an amalgam of tropes, motifs and clichés, but while the dystopian future has been a familiar trend over the last few years especially it does well to establish a compelling backdrop or habitat, if you will, for the kind of people we come to know in “Alita: Battle Angel.” Cameron, Rodriguez, and Laeta Kalogridis's screenplay shows early on that it has the aforementioned innate ability and, more importantly, a strong desire to construct a world centuries ahead of our present time that is not only inventive, but feels fully realized and lived-in. What the screenplay doesn't do and arguably fails to do is follow through on the promises of this world in which it builds. Meaning, that while it's not automatically a negative to utilize familiar sci-fi and action tropes there does need to be a unique take on whatever traits your movie or story might be adopting from the genre and there are certainly flashes of as much in ‘Alita,’ but most of it comes from the investment in our main character rather than any kind of investment in the beats she is following. You want to know more about the character, you want to live alongside them because this world that has been created feels so alive and so layered and so interesting, but it's almost as if you also wouldn't mind checking in on and seeing what other characters are up to because as much as we like Alita, there isn't really much depth or surprise to the video-game structured script that is pitting her against the ultimate final boss in the sky.
To lend better perspective to both this world and story would be to set-up the premise of the film stating that the film begins five hundred-plus years in the future in this aforementioned dystopian society. There was a massive war referred to as "The Fall" that happened some three hundred years prior that has left earth as a planet of middle to lower class individuals who are constantly under the scrutiny of those who prosper on this city that floats above them in the sky, Zalem, and is run by a mysterious figure known only as Nova. Down on earth though, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) serves to help the people of his community in Iron City as the majority of the residents are part-cyborg and therefore require tune-ups and repairs from time to time-all of which Dr. Ido is proficient in. There is no real explanation as to why everyone in town has at least one robotic appendage, but it's a futuristic world, so we'll take the movie's word for it that for whatever reason these new accessories are necessary. In his spare time though, Dr. Ido scavenges through junkyards that are compiled of the trash that is dropped from Zalem. In the film's opening moments though, Dr. Ido comes upon a disembodied female cyborg with a fully intact human brain. Dr. Ido rebuilds the cyborg, who does not have any recollections of her past, eventually giving her the name "Alita" which, as you can probably guess (and by guess, I mean know exactly what the connection is), has a significant connection to Dr. Ido's past. After waking up, Alita (a performance-captured Rosa Salazar) is eager to learn about the world around her quickly initiating friendships with people like Hugo (Keean Johnson) whom we see she immediately has something akin to affection for while making enemies out of full-on cyborgs like Zapan (Ed Skrein) and Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley). And so begins Alita's journey to figure out who she was, where she came from, and what her capabilities are that will inevitably connect to Nova and Zalem and all that good stuff, but it is within this journey that the script introduces what seems to be this world's only source of entertainment in what is called "Motorball" (like if you set roller derby inside the world of Battle Royale) which is naturally controlled by an entrepreneur working under Nova a la Vector (Mahershala Ali) who may or may not also have a weird sexual pact with Ido's ex-wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), who is also a doctor and intent on getting back to Zalem, but can't help but to do the right thing. It is when these elements are introduced that Alita begins to lose focus.
Unfortunately, the addition of these expanded threads in the film make it feel as if the majority of the story and most of the function of the plotting is to serve as this kind of prologue for what is to come. Obviously, Kishiro has written several different volumes in this series (nine!) and while it wouldn't be surprising to find out Cameron and Kalogridis pulled story ideas from more than one of those (two!) Alita more or less sets up a handful of plot strands for the sequel to follow-up on while exploring more than a few facets of the world for (hopeful) sequels to follow-up on as well. And while not opposed to a first movie knowing that it wants to be a part of a franchise, movies still need to tell a complete story in and of themselves separate from whatever might follow them sequentially, movies still need to be a first book and not just a first chapter and Alita definitely feels like a first chapter. This becomes all the more apparent and in turn all the more irritating given that by the end of the film there is no satisfying resolution to the conflict this movie has set-up...and this movie is not short. Rodriguez and Cameron could have very easily removed Ali's character altogether (he's largely wasted here anyway) or simply made Ali the Nova character and easily told more of a complete story given the arc of Alita's character is for her to go on this complete 360 from innocence to experience in the discovery of who she was and now is. In doing so, the filmmakers could have shaved off a good fifteen minutes and streamlined the story to feel less scattered while still being sprawling. Rather, the script is more intent on letting the audience know what is to come rather than reeling them in with what is happening which has been left up solely to the visuals, the world-building, and some of the performances. The problem with putting all of one's eggs into the basket of franchise building is convincing the audience they do in fact want more. Unfortunately, Cameron writes and Rodriguez directs like they know exactly what they want and therefore the movie comes off as if it knows exactly what it's doing-there is a real sense assuredness to the property-and yet it can't help but to struggles to get the audience to invest in this journey due simply to the fact the ambition of the storytelling isn't on par with the ambition of everything else on screen. Within the construction of this future society, the script fails to create something inspiring or enrapturing through this template that we've seen other movies do better and more interesting things through and around.
What elevates the material and makes up for this lack of storytelling ambition is the central performance of Salazar though, who brings a joy, wonder, and wide-eyed innocence to Alita that wasn't necessarily expected. Based on the title alone one might think this character to be a hardened soldier with some kind of amnesia along the lines of Jason Bourne who is stoic and trying to piece together the past so as to eventually find whoever disregarded him in the first place, but in waking up to the scenario of the caring Dr. Ido who provides this warm and caring environment that juxtaposes the rest of Iron City allows for Alita, who is a blank slate at the beginning of the movie, to react respond with this very curious and pleasant personality. Alita wants to learn, she wants to interact and engage, and is interested in all of these different facets that Dr. Ido and Hugo introduce her to. And though this is a performance capture performance it is absolutely a genuine performance that could not have been created in a computer without Salazar both literally and figuratively going through these motions to give the animators what they need to create the most photo-realistic character to ever grace the screen; it never feeling as if Alita's not truly interacting with the people or places around her. Despite the shortcomings of the plot overall, the film does do really well to make the titular character the heart of the film. This is something Rodriguez has always excelled at and more so than Cameron as of late as both filmmakers are innovators in their own right, but Rodriguez has always tried more to challenge the traditional format of cinema while Cameron is keen on pushing the technological boundaries; Rodriguez the more whimsical and Cameron the more analytical, this mixing and blending of styles does well to create this unexpected balance of solid science fiction with strong fantastical elements all of which reflect strongest in the performance of Salazar, the appeal of the main character, and the environments they've built. Waltz is also strong here even if he isn't necessarily stretching his acting chops too much and while wanting to like the Hugo character his and Alita's journey together still feels like something out of nineties teen melodrama. Johnson isn't a bad actor, but his presence doesn't feel congruent with this world. It also doesn't help that Hugo and Alita's relationship moves too quickly, especially with where the film ultimately goes and how it so easily takes for granted the ramifications of said relationship.
This appeal of the central character counts for a lot though, and when paired with the visual scope of what has been accomplished here it's difficult not to forgive many of the shortcomings. The action scenes in particular are very hard-hitting for a PG-13 film, but they are also very clean, well-staged, and clearly filmed in a way that the audience feels they can experience the full breadth of the situations and are not just being thrown to the wolves and being forced to put together who is where and what is happening. No, Rodriguez is very deliberate with his action and while the motorball stuff may lean a little too heavily into the reliable world of CGI the majority of the film is a grounded mesh of practical sets and stunts along with the abundance of unbelievable special effects-the greatest of which is Alita herself. And so, while this first ‘Alita’ (and I genuinely hope there are more of these) is not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination it does still takes some bad ideas and run with them. Fortunately, there is enough to like and enjoy here to warrant more as well as taking into consideration the admission that there is more to tell paired with the audience knowing there is a better, fuller story to be told within the confines of this world and with these characters.
by Philip Price
Director: Mike Mitchell
Starring: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks & Will Arnett
Rated: 1 hour & 46 minutes
It was a given “The LEGO Movie” would eventually get a sequel, but it's kind of crazy it took five years for that sequel to actually happen. That said, Warner Bros. has certainly expanded the LEGO brand by giving LEGO Batman his own feature as well as delivering their only misstep thus far, “The LEGO Ninjago Movie.” And while there was some trepidation going into this delayed, but inevitable sequel given original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were no longer at the helm there was some hope given it was still their minds that conjured up the screenplay. Thankfully, “Trolls” director Mike Mitchell was brought on board and has successfully converted Lord and Miller's screenplay into a sequel that keeps things in step with if not necessarily surpassing the original. Of course, given the precedent set for the original and what it turned out to be versus the raised bar for the sequel and what it has turned out to be-that's a solid accomplishment and a resounding endorsement. That is to say, upon initially hearing there was going to be a movie based solely around the LEGO brand and the toys and properties they owned it seemed obvious the eventual movie would turn out to be little more than a cash grab; nothing more than one big commercial, if you will. To expect this was ultimately foolish given the creative team behind it as Lord and Miller delivered a witty, colorful, and (per usual) meta piece of cinema that took some unexpected themes and conveyed them in a manner that allowed the children to enjoy the toys coming to life while the adults latched onto those ever fleeting moments of innocence that come with raising children and attaching certain memories to their playthings. “The LEGO Movie” intentionally evaded everything audiences expected it to be, disrupting the status quo and turning heads, but how was something so inventive and appropriately rowdy supposed to then follow itself up with something as conventional as a sequel? Especially given the abstract qualities of the first and having to continue the same narrative while holding tight to the themes the first film so perfectly encapsulated? It turns out, the trick is to lean into such things even further; deliver the same goods in a different package and through different techniques. And though “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” might feel redundant in certain ideas, the ideas it's pedaling never don't need to be heard...especially when they're this creatively catchy.
Speaking of the screenplay, things have only gotten worse after the events of the first film with Chris Pratt's Emmett being in denial about the ramifications of everything that has recently occurred. Prompting new conflict though, is not the return of President Business, but the arrival of LEGO DUPLO® invaders from outer space, wrecking everything faster than they can rebuild. In terms of how to continue to expand this universe while using the stable of toys they have to work with to their greatest advantage, this is a solid idea, but it is what Lord and Miller do with the already established framing device that allows for this continuation of the narrative to once again yield not only fun and entertaining results, but emotionally moving ones as well.
In the film, Emmett and Wyldstyle AKA Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) are dealing with the fallout of this invasion that has been going on for some five years now as Emmett continues to be cheery and optimistic while Lucy prefers to be more brooding and "mature". Bricksburg has morphed into what has been re-branded as "Apocalypseburg" with the fact Emmett is unable to see that things won't be going back to being awesome being the crux of the issues that begin to show cracks in the relationship between him and Lucy. Things go from bad to worse when General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) shows up with the intent of bringing back a suitor for Queen Watevra Wa'Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) of the Systar System to wed so as to accomplish what is presumed to be a nefarious plot. Thanks to the naiveté and general gullibility of Emmett though, Mayhem is able to get away with Lucy, Batman (Will Arnett), Benny the Space Man (Charlie Day) MetalBeard (Nick Offerman), and Unikitty (Alison Brie) leaving Emmett to have to own up to his mistake and grow out of his perceived lack of awareness and become a grittier, cooler, darker version of himself that isn't afraid to embrace the cynical side of life. Lucky for Emmett, on his venture out of Apocalypseburg and into the Systar System he stumbles across Rex Dangervest (also Pratt but sounding suspiciously like Chris Pratt doing a Kurt Russell impression) who is a fearless and brave LEGO action figure that is not only a cool space pilot, but an archeologist, cowboy, and raptor trainer (wink, wink). Upon arriving in the Systar System though, Emmett learns that much more is at stake than just the safety of his friends as something called the "Momageddon" looms near.
In regard to the aforementioned framing device, Lord and Miller use this device to once again traverse the film's emotional territory. What differs slightly this time around though, is the emotional terrain covered as the film dissects the transition from innocence to experience and the lack of fun that seemingly has to come with growing-up. In essence, Lord and Miller are encouraging the idea of both maintaining one’s sense of youth and wonder while suggesting the bigger issue is not remaining youthfully optimistic but closing off that part of ourselves that is our youth and wonder and not sharing it with those around you-a youth and wonder that is derived from playing with LEGOs, mind you. If you're a keen adult viewer in the slightest it's not difficult to pick up on the clues being laid out by the character names and environments that suggest how each might fit into this world designed by the kids playing with them. “The LEGO Movie 2” is somewhat spoofing the idea that to mature automatically means one has to be more serious and less fun-which falls perfectly in line for the sequel to also spoof this idea as it pertains to sequels and the second chapter always being a little darker and a little grittier-with all of this culminating in the revelation that changing for the better is in fact more beneficial than changing for the tougher. The film isn't discounting maturity, mind you, but is advocating for allowing one's self to look at things from a different perspective as even inherently bad situations might become more bearable if approached with more optimism and joy rather than worse. The message is simple: spread kindness, not hate. Open your heart, don't harden it. Know that while everything might not be awesome all of the time that this doesn't relegate everything to being hopeless either. It's in the execution of these simple, but effective reminders as expressed through the relationship of Finn (Jadon Sand) and younger sister Bianca (Brooklynn Prince) that the film really hammers home the fact that lightning is kind of striking twice and giving way for a movie about toy bricks to resonate deeply.
It might seem that it's now impossible for any movie made about toys to find itself not discussing anything other than the eventual loss of innocence by those who find the most joy in them, but as the broad strokes of the film boil down to learning to play together, constructively, it also seems Lord and Miller delve into a whole new realm of meta-commentary. As the toys themselves reflect the characteristics of the age of the kids who are playing with them the themes of the story become questionable as to what exactly Lord and Miller are chasing exactly. Given the number of tropes and pop culture references spoofed here, it would seem the writers were keen on discussing how a culture consumed by intimidating levels of content have culminated with new generation's imaginations having also been consumed by the conventions of these movies and TV shows to the point their minds no longer know how to do anything other than imitate as much. In going this meta one wonders whether or not Lord and Miller thought this analogy of sorts through or if they simply could walk it off by tying it back to the themes of growing past certain things while embracing certain aspects of other things-whether it be our childhoods or our movie and TV clichés-so as to continually strive for the best but keep our expectations in check. It's difficult to say given the conclusion of the film only seems to restate the "open your heart, don't harden it" thesis rather than acknowledging much in the way of how they might suggest we begin to change or at least evolve these conventions they've become so adept at lampooning. It's nice to acknowledge all these familiarities and poke fun at them, but it will be interesting to see how-as these tropes do begin to adjust and evolve-how Lord and Miller do so with them.
Coming back out of that wormhole though, and taking “The LEGO Movie 2” for what it's worth based on face value alone is to reiterate that it is a ton of fun that has no right being as good or ambitious as it ends up being. Yes, the themes and meta-commentaries are great and add layers upon layers of ideas for young viewers to dig through and better comprehend as they grow-up (hopefully) re-watching these films, but beyond that they are fulfilling on a basic level as well; engineered for any engagement level. The Lonely Island guys are back with Robyn for a ditty just as catchy and maybe twice as funny as "Everything is Awesome" (stay through the credits, seriously...not for what comes after them, but for the credits themselves) while the likes of Haddish, Beck, and T-Pain perform original songs within the context of the film ("Oh no, are we in a musical?") each of which do well to stick in your head, progress the story, and be genuinely funny. Further, Mark Mothersbaugh's score is as much a play on the orchestral scores of big tentpole, franchise films as the script is on the previously discussed conventions of these genres. The animation is stunning (as always, see it on an IMAX or Liemax screen if playing on one near you) as the detail of the scratches and scuff marks on each of the pieces in play here is unbelievably life-like and really stands out in this format. And finally, if for nothing else, see the film because it truly is genuinely funny and maybe more importantly-consistently funny. For someone who sees at least one new release in theaters a week it's been a fair amount of time since there was this much fun to be had at the movies (coincidentally, maybe ‘Spider-Verse’?). “The LEGO Movie 2” doesn't necessarily surpass the precedent set by the first, but it does keep up with and stay in line with that unbelievable precedent giving audiences both a reality check as well as a dose of reassurance.
by Philip Price
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Starring: Gina Rodriguez, Thomas Dekker & Vivian Chan
Runtime: 1 hour & 44 minutes
Drug cartels and beauty pageants aren't exactly two things one might naturally pair together and certainly aren't two things one might believe to have similar skillsets, but in these opposing actions we find some crossover and it is in this intersection of the two as presented in 2019's “Miss Bala” that we find the most interesting theme director Catherine Hardwicke's (“Thirteen”) film has to offer: appearance, pretense, facade. Both worlds in which these two seemingly distant activities take place present this outward appearance where it is key to maintain the less than pleasant reality behind the scenes. While no expert in either drug and weapons trafficking or in beauty pageants, it would seem that within a drug cartel what the money can buy you is obviously flaunted in the forefront while the dirty work is kept behind closed doors while with beauty pageants what is presented is the whole point and the whole point is to be pretty and appealing, but what no one sees is the hard work and dedication it takes to present such a veneer. What is interesting about this though, is that in keeping up such appearances the individual must learn to exude a certain level of confidence, to truly build this exterior based on their look and the way they carry themselves that might be completely misleading or the exact opposite of what they might be feeling inside. Of course, this could be true of any number of things and in any number of professions, but it is these parallels that the film examines and ultimately utilizes to its substantial advantage that give “Miss Bala” just the slightest amount of weight whereas otherwise this English-language re-make simply settles into a pattern of being a mostly interesting action noir of sorts if not ever being as fun as it feels it should be given the baked-in premise of this average, every-day protagonist discovering her own sense of worth and inner-strength that allows her to be able to combat this situation she's fallen into completely by accident. Gina Rodriguez (TV's “Jane the Virgin”) is more than formidable given what the role calls for and she graphs her character's arc in believable fashion, but it is the otherwise routine direction and lack of intuition into tone on the part of Hardwicke that levels the themes and character work clearly at play here.
Based on the 2011 Spanish-language film of the same name by writer/director Gerardo Naranjo which in turn was based on a true story about an actual connection between the winner of the 2008 Nuestra Belleza Mexico pageant and a cartel, Hardwicke's “Miss Bala” changes things up ever so slightly as Rodriguez's Gloria is now a make-up artist living in Los Angeles who travels back to Tijuana to help lifelong friend, Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), as she competes in the "Miss Bala" pageant. While I haven't seen the original, seemingly grittier and more brutal portrayal of this young pageant contestant forced to do favors for a Baja California cartel what both films do seem to have in common is this strange, but fact-based history of pageant queens and Mexican drug cartels. Upon first meeting Gloria, Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer's screenplay sets her up as this innocent and somewhat naive young woman, but only naive in the way that she doesn't know how Mexican drug cartels work which is to say the majority of us would come off as naive and sheltered were we thrown into such a situation. More importantly is this facet of Gloria that she is easily intimidated and somewhat afraid to take the reins of her own life as she works hard to show her worth but allows herself to be shot down just as easily. This trip to Tijuana to reunite with Suzu is very clearly an escape of sorts though leading Gloria to maybe take more chances and be a little more brazen than she might typically allow herself to be which is why she ends up in a night club with Suzu as she attempts to get close with the local chief of police, Saucedo (Damián Alcázar) is who said to have great influence on the pageant. This night out quickly turns deadly when Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), the ringleader of the biggest cartel in the area, and his fellow gunmen invade the nightclub seeking the chief of police as well. Gloria and Suzu are separated with Gloria ultimately coming into the possession of the cartel where she is kept alive largely due to her U.S. citizenship and the fact, she might be of some use to them. After Gloria explains that she is only visiting and now looking for her missing friend, Lino agrees to help her find her find Suzu if she agrees to work for them. As Gloria becomes caught in the cross-hairs of drug gangs and the DEA, it's unclear how she might survive.
While Hardwicke has proved an interesting director in the past this has largely been in regards more to project choice than it has directorial efforts in general. Hardwicke has only written two features, and both have been done with writing partners while her projects she's done as a director-for-hire have suffered by seeming as if they have no distinct directorial voice to them. The same can largely be said for “Miss Bala” as the film looks as if it were shot with the eye of about as mainstream a filmmaker as it gets; meaning there is nothing glaringly unique or interesting about the way in which she captures these, admittedly tense, events. Where the film does make some deviations from the action/thriller conveyor belt are largely in the character department as the change in the character of Gloria from a pageant contestant who lives and works in Tijuana to a Mexican girl who grew up in America, doesn't speak fluent Spanish, and upon returning to Tijuana doesn't feel like she fits in touches upon this great sense of not belonging anywhere; such circumstances have molded this identity crisis which can again be related back to Gloria's lack of self-worth that is demonstrated from the first moment we meet her on screen. Naturally, given the aforementioned beats of the plot one might guess that Gloria's insecurities and self-esteem grow exponentially over the course of the film, but the fact this change was made in the transition from Spanish to English-language iteration adds a layer not only of necessity, but of the complexities and fears born not only from the situations we find ourselves in, but also the ones we encounter and have to overcome internally. Making this hill harder to climb is the other character/reason that the script offers up lending “Miss Bala” more shading than it might initially appear to possess. Cordova's very clear-cut bad guy is given a fair amount of leniency simply for the way he looks, but as we come to know this perception of him that he allows Gloria to see, the audience in turn begins to experience some symptoms of Stockholm syndrome. Cordova is able to elicit a sympathy for his character that feels founded in this idea that he had no choice but to grow up and become the man the world has now made him out to be. Both Cordova and Rodriguez offer smart, grounded performances, but they are largely in service of a movie that spends more time hitting the necessary quota of generic shootouts than it does digging into these more potent areas of character possibilities. It should also be noted that Anthony Mackie shows up briefly as someone who may or may not be who he appears to be, but Mackie is ultimately little more than a blip on the radar here...much like the movie itself will be in regard to films released in 2019.
by Philip Price
Director: Joe Cornish
Starring: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Denise Gough & Patrick Stewart
Runtime: 2 hours
“The Kid Who Would be King” takes the Arthurian legend, drops it into modern day Britain, and puts a “Stranger Things” twist on it in the hopes of capturing some of the magic of those live-action adventure flicks for kids that were more prominent in the early to mid- ‘90s. “The Kid Who Would Be King” is immediately appealing and don't get me wrong, has its charms, but as one sits and experiences the film it can't help but become evident that this charm largely is due to the fact audiences simply don't see this type of movie as often anymore. Were we still to get a handful of these kinds of movies every year odds are “The Kid Who Would Be King” would fall somewhere in the bottom half of the barrel, but given the rarity of its genre and style of its execution it can't help but to feel a little more special. Writer/director Joe Cornish, who is largely known for directing 2011's “Attack the Black” and introducing the world to a 19-year-old John Boyega, but who is also a frequent collaborator of Edgar Wright's and who has worked on screenplays for the filmmaker including “Ant-Man” and “Hot Fuzz,” has decided to place his own twist on this traditional hero's journey of a story that we've seen numerous versions and interpretations of since the beginning of cinema. Unfortunately, Cornish's twist on the material isn't exactly fresh or unique in any form that inspires something of a revitalized hope in this live-action children's genre which is rather disappointing given the way in which his previous film took certain tropes of the alien invasion film and spiced them up with a unique location and wicked sense of humor; it was fun because it featured conventional story beats upended by unconventional protagonists whereas “The Kid Who Would Be King,” which essentially has all of the same elements minus the R-rating, displays half the energy and even less of the creativity that seemed to surge through the veins of “Attack the Block”. Cornish displays fits and starts of both as there is a certain energy to moments and flashes of innate creativity in others, but overall the film feels patched together and somewhat choppy-as if Cornish is never able to fall naturally into the groove, he wants this story to find and thus the final product defaulting to this collection of overused themes and narrative devices that feels flat and rather bland. Cornish ultimately doesn't even attempt much of a twist on these beats, but more plays to the strength of them which-thankfully-is more than enough to keep the target audience entertained if not completely entranced.
Beginning with an animated epilogue that catches up seasoned viewers and informs the younger ones on the high points of that aforementioned Arthurian legend, “The Kid Who Would Be King” swiftly delivers all of the story points the rest of the movie will then have to follow-up on which are largely the details about what kind of person will be able to pull the sword from the stone when it again returns to the mortal realm and the reasons for said sword doing so which mostly has to do with Rebecca Ferguson's villain, Morgana. Morgana is the half-sister of King Arthur and is bound (literally-to a tree) and determined to get back to the surface world to reign supreme or something like that as Arthur banished her until the world became truly divided and guess what...? She's about to come back, y'all. After this brief history lesson, but what is arguably the most visually enticing sequence in the film, we are introduced to Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy) and are presented with the context that his home life is rather broken; he has no father figure and while his mother (Denise Gough) is supportive, she struggles to connect with him. Alex has also just transferred to a new prep school where he's in the youngest class on campus and is thus bullied by older students, specifically Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), though Alex does have one best friend in Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) who is unflinchingly loyal and the two would do anything for one another-Bedders even believing his friend when Alex comes to discover he might be a distant descendant of King Arthur. This all comes about after Lance and Kaye chase Alex down after school where he stumbles upon a construction site with a sword mysteriously placed in a stone. Alex is able to remove the sword quite effortlessly and while Alex doesn't necessarily buy into believing in the possibility of his lineage, he begins to become more convinced as things get increasingly weird in his world. The first sign of such happenings is the appearance of a new kid at school who calls himself Merten (Angus Imrie), but in all actuality is the young version of legendary wizard, Merlin. Merlin-played in hid elder form by Patrick Stewart-informs Alex and Bedders that Morgana is an impending threat while convincing Alex of his validity as this chosen one, as this actual hero who must go on this journey of making allies out of his enemies and mending the division that separates the world so as to rally together to defeat Morgana and her army of undead soldiers.
From here, it's not hard to see where the movie is going or what it's doing-even in terms of the lessons it is teaching-though they are more than suitable for the intended audience; the question is whether or not that target audience will become invested in this well-constructed, but rather routine execution of this familiar collection of story beats. The tediousness of what the majority of “The Kid Who Would Be King” offers might lead one to believe this is a disappointment considering the creative forces behind it, but it's not so much disappointing as it is content; it's more that the film delivers a sense of complacency whereas when you have a writer/director like Cornish you expect him to be anything but complacent when he seemingly has full creative reign over the project. That isn't to say the movie is totally devoid of any charms as the lively cast of characters ironically enough lend the film itself a fair amount of character. And while both Ferguson and Stewart's roles in the film-both of which have been promoted fairly heavily due to their levels of celebrity-are little more than glorified cameos it is to the credit of the young cast that most of the time we don't miss these more recognizable, more seasoned presence's on screen. Imrie is the true highlight here though, as his interpretation of the centuries old wizard via the body of a teenage boy plopped into modern times is something that's impossible to stop watching and in fact, something worthy of wishing the movie would stay with this character more often so as to see what it might be like exploring the contemporary world with the character. It would be enough to say Imrie is so good one forgets his counterpart in the role is Patrick Stewart, but Stewart seems to realize what he can offer and what Imrie has to offer aren't exactly two sides of the same coin, but more the same man separated by those aforementioned centuries and the embodiment of different perspectives and understandings. The core group of kids suffice well enough though Serkis' performance does leave one wondering if he'd have scored the lead in this $60 million children's fantasy were it not for the wee bit of nepotism taking place. That said, Chaumoo's comedic timing is fairly solid even if the dialogue and/or jokes he has to offer aren't the best while Taylor and Dorris more or less imitate the countless move bullies that have come before them more than they do progress the stock characters in any form or fashion.
Having its heart in the right place counts for a lot in “The Kid Who Would Be King” though, and it is largely through these familiar, but time-tested themes and illustrated lessons that it's easy to appreciate the overall goal of the picture. While the genre of live-action movies for kids between the ages of eight and thirteen has largely been reduced to higher-brow computer animated films or that of the onslaught of comic book films and IP-related re-makes and/or re-boots there is something to be said for an original, modestly-budgeted live-action adventure epic for tweens that wholeheartedly embraces the genre and the idea of reiterating the importance of chivalry and encouraging communion rather than division. Cornish completely conveys they tone he is chasing through Serkis' similar wardrobe and overall look to Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future” along with Stewart's Christopher Lloyd-esque wackiness even if he doesn't particularly nail it. There are far worse things that could be delivered to the world at our present time in history and while there might be little that will stick with adults as they leave the theater one would be remiss to say that younger viewers won't come to care about what occurs on screen. Furthermore, the acknowledgement of such real-life issues as the bullying and the broken family dynamic only further serve as proof that while Cornish may have been less creative in his broad strokes, he's certainly in tune with a pulse that will tap into the smaller moments of reality for a generation while those bigger strokes contradict the stark reality with an escapism that still feels tangible. Electric Wave Bureau's synth-heavy and early video game-inspired score add the energy that is largely lacking from Cornish's screenplay while the film overall is strikingly good at piecing together the build-up to big sequences if not necessarily delivering on those sequences once the time comes. The prime example of this is in the final battle and the lead-up thereof as Alex and the gang rally the remainder of his school to fight alongside them while Merlin hypnotizes the teachers and administration into giving Alex's newfound army any resources they might need. The creativity in this training montage is evident in such things as what the kids use for weapons and shields down to the traps they set for these lava-molded knights on horseback, but once the battle itself begins the sequence quickly devolves into a subpar CGI slugfest. If only Cornish leaned harder on the power of his film's character and his cast's charm the simple lessons he's trying to convey might have come through clearer.
by Philip Price
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis & Samuel L. Jackson
Runtime: 2 hours & 9 minutes
Nineteen years after writer/director M. Night Shyamalan's sophomore effort, “Unbreakable,” and two years after he confirmed his return to form with “Split,” the unique auteur has concocted what is the third film in an unlikely, but not so unlikely trilogy given the twist in “Unbreakable” was that all-along viewers were watching the origin story of a new hero and his arch nemesis yet were unaware of it. Like “Unbreakable,” “Split” was marketed under the guise of a different genre than what its true intentions held and when that original, James Newton Howard score re-emerged in those final moments of “Split” almost two years ago to the weekend it was one of the greatest "twists" I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing in a theater. This inadvertently created an issue for Shyamalan though, as with this trilogy-capper, “Glass,” there is no disguising what genre this film belongs to: this is a super hero movie through and through. And so, for a director who has made a name and a career off of the misdirect and/or "twist ending" the challenge in penning his first, unabashed sequel would be that of how might he might continue building these characters organically while integrating them into one another's respective worlds as well as framing the continuation of their story through a device that would satisfy the intrigue and sustain the investment. The idea that James McAvoy's "Beast" or Kevin Wendall Crumb as we know he truly exists is in the same world as Bruce Willis' David Dunn and Samuel L. Jackson's Elijah Price made for some exciting prospects, but where would Shyamalan actually go with things? How would these three individuals find their way across one another's paths and even if they happened to meet-what might it ultimately amount to? These are big questions that require much ambition and follow-through and while Shyamalan has been saying since “Unbreakable” opened in 2000 that he's had ideas or plans for a follow-up the time has finally come to put up or shut-up and for the most part, it's a good thing Shyamalan doesn't shut-up. With “Glass,” the filmmaker certainly has much to communicate and much he wants to say, but one will be hard pressed to figure out how all of these (broken) pieces are meant to fit together.
From the outset, it looked as if “Glass” would not only expand on McAvoy's Kevin, but bring audiences up to date on what David and Elijah had been up to in the nearly 20 years since that fateful train crash (though the trailers made it safe to assume Elijah had been rotting away in mental hospitals the entire time). As with all Shyamalan films it is important to play the beats of the story as close to one's chest as possible, but in the broadest sense of a synopsis we are brought back into the world through the character that started all of this AKA Dunn who, along with the help of his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), has been quietly patrolling the streets for some time and upgrading his career from that of a stadium security guard to owning his own security system shop. While it might have been more interesting if we were let in on whether the same trends that have come to fruition since the release of “Unbreakable” in the real world-meaning the rise of comic book movie-also took place in the world of Dunn thus allowing Shyamalan to attribute the increased attention to Dunn and the spread of this "delusion" to something more and bigger than just fate, but that isn't the twist (or one of the multiple twists) in “Glass.” Despite as much, this idea that people believing they have super-human abilities does lead to the introduction of new character, Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). We learn rather quickly that Staple is working in the ever-growing field of those real-life humans who actually believe they have supernatural abilities, but one of the first signs of trouble in the film is that we never get a sense of this growing epidemic. There is no wing of the psych ward where Staple works that's filled with characters, we don't yet know nor are there any whispers of possible other beings like Dunn or Crumb; outside of these three individuals we've already come to know this doesn't seem to be an issue. To combat this criticism, “Glass” is purposefully a smaller-scale film that is keen to keep its stakes fairly low in an attempt to upend the conventions of comic books Shyamalan is simultaneously keen on dissecting, but he executes this in such a way that most of the time the movie feels like, "look how smart I'm being," as the director conveys these ideas as if he were giving a lecture rather than showing us these deconstructions through action that would make the audience sit back and suggest, "how smart the movie is being."
Given the ambition, but taking into account the perplexing decisions made in order to fulfill that ambition, “Glass” is a particularly tough nut to crack. It desires to accomplish and create so much more than the empty feeling one is left with when the credits finally begin to roll. In this way, one is left to largely admire the more obvious and more technical aspects of the production. For example, it was clear after “Split” that McAvoy was onto something special in his performance as an individual with D.I.D (Dissociative Identity Disorder) or Multiple Personality Disorder as it is more commonly known as well as a person who just, mentally, was not well. But while we only caught a glimpse of a handful of the personalities that lurked within Kevin in his inaugural film in Glass, we are able to bear witness to nearly all of the said to be twenty-four personalities he possesses. And make no mistake about it, while the movie is named after a different character and Shyamalan has said and this has been touted more as a sequel to “Unbreakable,” it is just as much a sequel to “Split” as McAvoy is the star. The personalities are cycled through rather quickly thanks to an easy little narrative trick Shyamalan utilizes through the character of Staple and within the confines of the mental institution where the majority of the movie takes place. Some of the personalities blend together while others would certainly be worth spending more time with if the movie had that option of give us, but while there are certain, individual moments where it might feel as if McAvoy is getting a little showy or a little too self-indulgent with just how broadly he's laying out examples of the different people these personalities represent the skill necessary to keep each of them straight in his mind, keep them effective in the performance, and transition from one to the next without a hitch is more than impressive and the actor seemingly pulls as much off without breaking a sweat (unless he's the beast of course, by which he's a naturally slimy dude). Willis is thankfully more invested than he's not, but I wish there were more of the character overall as this is the guy, we, the audience, are most connected to. Jackson is most definitely here for it though, as the typically larger-than-life personality is resigned to a wheelchair and largely wordless performance for a fair chunk of the film, but still leaves an indelible impression as the titular Mr. Glass.
Ultimately, “Glass” tries to do too much, but accomplishes very little in the end. For all the weight this film should carry as is outlined in the initial paragraph of this review-the film itself produces little to nothing that impacts the viewer on an emotional level and that’s saying something given the events that unfold in the final 20 minutes of the movie. What Shyamalan is using this scenario to communicate-a message about the powers that be keeping people that are truly exceptional down so as to maintain a societal balance and convince the masses they are only capable of so much-leaves the audience cold to a collection of characters and tropes that might have elicited both real sorrow and inspiration had it simply capitalized on some of the tropes it tries so hard to dismantle. A cliché is only recognized as a cliché when it’s done poorly. It’s not that the film is either actively bad or threatening levels of mediocre either, but rather that it has fits and starts of real greatness as well as utter terribleness to boot. This leads, more than any other feeling, to disappointment given the moments that do genuinely hint at what expectations the previous films had set this finale up for are in fact pretty damn great. For the first half-hour or so of the film it sells exactly what one would expect a clash of “Unbreakable” and “Split” to be and that is to say it does admittedly cash in on many of the things that were easy to assume said mash-up would include, but it genuinely is thrilling to see Willis in this world again, Clark-Treat back playing his son, and there is a solace in knowing the two have remained close and continued working together to rid their corner of Philadelphia of the creeps that lurk in the streets. It follows logic that in light of Dunn hearing the news of the kidnapped girls and this so-called “beast” being on the run that he would begin to try and track the guy’s movement and their inevitable confrontation is on full display, but once Staple enters the picture and the three leads are boiled down to sitting around in padded and/or cells with hoses rigged up so as to be analyzed and convinced of their own self-delusions the film seemingly devolves from being both a satisfactory sequel and contemporary contradiction to every other comic book movie out there to a largely lifeless exercise in spouting nuggets of genre commentary where the actions of the characters couldn’t feel more forced to fit their director’s ideas. All of this leading to an unrefined and anticlimactic finale that never once feels genuine in concluding all that has come to affect these characters in the past. “Glass” is a mess of ideas and muddled execution.
by Philip Price
Here we are once again with the 2019 Oscar nominations and while I attempt to limit any coverage of the awards season hoopla (simply because there are so many to cover and too little to care about) the Academy Awards are obviously the biggest show of the season and so it was with great anticipation I awaited this morning’s announcements. What has been great about this year's award season thus far is the seeming lack of any clear front-runner. There have been so many films vying for the attention of awards season audiences this season, including a few that hardly got noticed at all including “First Reformed” (how is Ethan Hawke not racking up on statues?) and “First Man” (available on home video platforms now) and thus it has resulted in a field of nominees that, while more concentrated than I imagined, still leaves room for an open playing field come the night of the ceremony. Let's start with things I'm happy to see. Obviously, with “A Star is Born” being one of my favorite movies of 2018 I am thrilled to see writer/director/star Bradley Cooper and his film grab a Best Picture and Best Actor nomination, but the snub of no directing nod for Cooper is a big indicator of how the gold might actually pass this one up. Still, it's nice to see Lady Gaga get nominated in the Best Actress category here though her odds of winning have decreased significantly over the past month or two. “A Star is Born” felt like the heavy-hitter of this awards season going in but hasn't done much outside a few wins for Gaga in acting and Original Song. While I'm still optimistic about the film's chances at taking home some major prizes there is definitely more of a risk of something like “Green Book” or - most likely – “Roma” taking some of the major categories. I wouldn't be surprised if there's another split among Director and Picture this year, but we'll get into the details of things in the following paragraphs to come. For now, hit the jump for a full list of nominees.
And so, as always it is easier to see more of the bad than the good, but we'll try to kick things off with a lot of the positives here. Both “Roma” and “The Favourite” lead the pack with a total of 10 nominations apiece and it is very likely that “Roma” will be taking home Best Picture, Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film, though I could see the Academy giving it one of the two Best Picture awards and allowing another film to take home the other-whether that be “Shoplifters” or “Cold War” in Foreign language or “A Star is Born” or “Green Book” in Best Picture is up in the air. Speaking of “Cold War” though, that Polish film was able to garner a total of three nominations including a Best Director nod for Pawel Pawlikowski in what is his first Academy Award nomination as a director though his 2013 film, “Ida,” did win him Best Foreign Language Film in 2015 as well as being nominated for Cinematography just as “Cold War” is has been this year. While Netflix is no doubt more than happy with the performance of “Roma” in the awards race thus far this season they are also now celebrating the fact their Coen Brothers produced “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” received three nominations in Adapted Screenplay, Original Song and Costume Design. While I rather enjoyed ‘Buster Scruggs’ it simply hasn't had much momentum this awards season despite being from the Coen Brothers (and a Coen Brothers Western at that!) as well as having been released on the streaming service in the thick of awards season, but while it will likely not end up taking home any awards for which it was nominated this is still a strong sign the tides are changing and the Academy is willing to look past the method in which the majority of viewers will see a film...it only took the Coens and Alfonso Cuaron to do it.
OK, so there's some good stuff there and in all honesty, it's difficult to get too worked up over these things even if something you loved didn't get nominated as the Oscars have become less and less of a true reflection of the time and more such a mediary between the artistic side and the commercial side of filmmaking that no one really ends up being happy when something like “Green Book” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” become the movies that stand at the front of the line (both of which are fine enough films, but nowhere near the best of the year) rather than something more personal and as beautifully constructed as “If Beale Street Could Talk” or as bombastic and entertaining as “Avengers: Infinity War” - both of which I would argue were much bigger accomplishments in all regards than either of those middle of the road "based on true story" dramas. Still, the big headline this year will be that “Black Panther” is the first super hero movie that has ever been nominated in the Best Picture category and while that is certainly something, it can't help but feel like more of a charity nomination than a genuine one. Was “Black Panther” good? Sure, it was fine, but is it the first superhero movie deserving of a Best Picture nom? No, certainly not ever and not even this year as both ‘Infinity War’ or “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” were more deserving of said nomination than “Black Panther.” If the Academy truly believed “Black Panther” was worthy of this nomination it would have seen more high-profile nominations such as Michael B. Jordan in the Supporting Actor category or a nod for Ryan Coogler in Director, but instead the remainder of its nominations were in technical categories like Costume, Score, Song, Production Design, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing.
If we're going to talk about biggest snubs though, that would bring us to the Best Documentary Feature category where in which neither “Won't You Be My Neighbor?,” maybe the most talked about doc of the year, or “Three Identical Strangers” (one of the best films of the year. period.) were nominated. Other, much talked-about docs like “Minding the Gap,” “RBG” and “Free Solo” all got in, but for one reason or another in a year where the Academy had considered adding a "Most Popular Film" category they decided to exclude what was, without a doubt, the most popular documentary of what was maybe the last five years. Ranking just behind these major documentary snubs is that of no nomination for Justin Hurwitz's “First Man” score. While the film itself was received well enough if not enthusiastically it didn't provide the box office the studio likely expected for the director of the “La La Land” follow-up to said film that again starred Ryan Gosling, but Hurwitz's score and Claire Foy's supporting performance had still received, at the very least, nominations in their respective categories if not a few wins here and there. Neither Hurwitz nor Foy were nominated this morning with “First Man” getting a total of only four nominations all of which were in technical categories for which it is likely to win in maybe one category. Other major snubs include the lack of Timothee Chalamet in the Supporting Actor category for “Beautiful Boy” (which I'm fine with as I thought both the movie and the performance were a little too pointedly Oscar bait), no Emily Blunt in either Supporting Actress (“A Quiet Place”) or Best Actress (“Mary Poppins Returns”), no ‘Beale Street’ in the Best Picture category, and no Ethan Hawke in Best Actor though I was happy to see “First Reformed” get a little recognition in the form of Paul Schrader's Original Screenplay nomination. I also would have personally liked to see Brian Tyree Henry get into the Supporting Actor race over the obligatory Rockwell nomination as the actor has had an incredible year appearing in “Widows,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and providing voice work in ‘Into the Spider-Verse.’
Check out the full list of nominees below and catch the broadcast on Sunday, February 24 at 8pm ET on ABC.
Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards
“A Star Is Born”
Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”)
Pawel Pawlikowski (“Cold War”)
Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Favourite”)
Alfonso Cuaron (“Roma”)
Adam McKay (“Vice”)
Christian Bale (“Vice”)
Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”
Bradley Cooper (“A Star Is Born”)
Willem Defoe (“At Eternity’s Gate”)
Viggo Mortensen (“Green Book”)
Yalitza Aparicio (“Roma”)
Glenn Close (“The Wife”)
Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”)
Lady Gaga (“A Star Is Born”)
Melissa McCarthy (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”)
Mahershala Ali (“Green Book”)
Richard E. Grant (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”)
Sam Elliott (“A Star Is Born”)
Sam Rockwell (“Vice”)
Adam Driver (“BlacKkKlansman”)
Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”)
Amy Adams (“Vice”)
Marina De Tavira (“Roma”)
Rachel Weisz (“The Favourite”)
Emma Stone (“The Favourite”)
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
“If Beale Street Could Talk”
“A Star Is Born”
Best Original Screenplay
“Isle of Dogs”
“Ralph Breaks the Internet”
“Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse
Foreign Language Film
“Cold War” (Poland)
“Never Look Away” (Germany)
“Hale County This Morning This Evening”
“Minding the Gap”
“Of Fathers and Sons”
“Never Look Away”
“A Star Is Born”
Best Costume Design
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
“Mary Poppins Returns”
“Mary Queen of Scots”
Makeup and Hairstyling
“Mary Queen of Scots”
“If Beale Street Could Talk”
“Isle of Dogs”
“Mary Poppins Returns”
“All the Stars” (“Black Panther”)
“I’ll Fight” (“RBG”)
“The Place Where Lost Things Go” (“Mary Poppins Returns”)
“Shallow” (“A Star Is Born”)
“When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”)
“Mary Poppins Returns”
“A Quiet Place”
“A Star Is Born”
“Avengers: Infinity War”
“Ready Player One”
“Solo: A Star Wars Story”
Documentary (Short Subject)
“A Night at the Garden”
“Period. End of Sentence.”
Short Film (Animated)
“One Small Step”
Short Film (Live Action)
by Philip Price
With a new year we are brought many new prospects for our entertainment purposes and in looking forward to 2019 one thing is more than clear and that is the fact audiences will have an abundance of interesting material to choose from. In setting out to make a most anticipated list I actually began with some 50-something films I found interesting or knew I'd care to see based solely on surface factors such as director, cast members, or synopsis. It pains me that movies like John Crowley's follow-up to “Brooklyn,” “Goldfinch,” won't get acknowledged here nor will James Mangold's “Ford v. Ferrari,” Danny Boyle's Beatles project, or Joe Wright's “The Woman in the Window,” but that is the way these things work. That is without mentioning the long list of blockbusters that won't appear here-including “Glass,” “Shazam!,” “Captain Marvel,” “John Wick: Chapter 3,” “The Lion King,” and the “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” sequel-as I'm certainly excited to see what each of those deliver but am not anticipating any with the fervor my top 10 bring.
There are plenty others of course, but there just isn't enough space in the world for everything that sounds promising in 2019 and so, here are 10 I definitely can't wait to watch and know that I'll definitely be seeing this calendar year.
10. Gemini Man
Director Ang Lee’s upcoming science-fiction/action-thriller “Gemini Man” had been languishing in Hollywood development for more than two decades. Thanks to modern technology though, the film, which wrapped production last July, will finally see the light of day this October. The film, which has more than a handful of writers credited, follows an over-the-hill hitman facing off against a younger clone of himself and stars Will Smith in the lead role with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, and Benedict Wong in supporting roles. (Premieres: 10/4)
9. Fast & Furious presents: Hobbs & Shaw
A spin-off of ‘The Fast and the Furious’ franchise that might have simultaneously broken-up the ‘Furious’ family, “Hobbs & Shaw” sees Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's US Diplomatic Security Agent Luke Hobbs forming an unlikely alliance with Jason Statham's Deckard Shaw. The two had some electric chemistry when they were finally allowed to face one another on screen in 2017's “The Fate of the Furious,” but no one expected-least of all Vin Diesel and Tyrese (apparently)-said chemistry to result in an actual stand-alone movie where the hardened secret agent and former villain would team-up to fight what I can only assume is Idris Elba's baddie, Brixton, who no doubt has some nefarious plot to steal a valued piece of technology. Vanessa Kirby, Eiza González, and Eddie Marsan co-star. (Premieres: 8/2)
8. The Irishman
Martin Scorsese directs Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel in a crime drama that chronicles a mob hitman as he recalls his possible involvement in the slaying of Jimmy Hoffa. That's really all that needs to be said about this film or what will otherwise become known as the most expensive original Netflix movie to date (it carries a $140 million price tag), but it's really all that can be said right now as there isn't much else known about the film including when it will be released or how. I suspect Netflix will give Scorsese the same treatment it has Alfonso Cuaron's “Roma” this year, but only time will tell. Needless to say, regardless of how I eventually see it, a new Scorsese picture is always something to be excited about. (Premieres: TBD)
7. Toy Story 4
When the final reel of 2010's “Toy Story 3” finally finished it seemed there was no better or more poignant way to complete a trilogy that had begun some 15 years earlier and revolutionized animation as we know it, but as Pixar has become more and more reliant on sequels to the films that originally made them the powerhouse they are today it seemed inevitable we would one day get another chapter in the sage of Buzz and Woody no matter how much I wished for Pixar to keep that book closed. So, why is there excitement then for this fourth chapter in which a new toy called "Forky" joins Woody and the gang on a road trip that reveals how big the world can be for a toy? Well, because it's still a Toy Story film and because I'm intrigued as to where new director Josh Cooley might take the story and what screenwriters Stephany Folsom and Will McCormack have come up with that might warrant another trip behind the curtain. (Premieres: 6/21)
Despite his films typically receiving more negative press than unanimous praise, I've been a fan of director Todd Phillips since he knocked me out with a double dose of Frat Pack greatness in 2003 and 2004 with “Old School” and the “Starsky & Hutch” movie re-boot before going on to become better known for his ‘Hangover’ trilogy. While that trilogy may have become more and more mediocre over the course of three films in terms of story, they vastly improved Phillips' cinematic eye while the filmmaker's subversive take on the material at least led to interesting outlets. And while the character of the Joker arguably will suffer more than he might prosper from an origin story, with a screenplay by Phillips and Scott Silver along with a cast that features the likes of Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro it's hard to argue one isn't at least intrigued by the promise if not excited by the idea. (Premieres: 10/4)
5. Star Wars: Episode IX
It's hard to believe the monumental finale of the Skywalker saga only ranks in the middle of my 10 most anticipated features for the year in which it will debut, but after 2017's ‘The Last Jedi’ both excitement and expectations have been severely tempered for this last installment. If it's not obvious already, I was not a fan of Rian Johnson's middle chapter in what is seemingly the third and final trilogy in the main series of ‘Star Wars’ films as it almost irreverently disregarded everything writer/director J.J. Abrams set-up in ‘The Force Awakens.’ And while Abrams is back to complete this trilogy, he began four years ago in 2015, one cannot help but feel much of the air has already left the room despite the fact we haven't seen a single shot or piece of footage from the upcoming film. Here's to hoping lowered expectations lead to greater reward. (Premieres: 12/20)
4. It: Chapter Two
The success of the first half of director Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King's IT afforded him the luxury of an A-list ensemble and plenty of time to develop and shoot this sequel we kind of already knew was happening even before that first film blew all expectations out of the water; going on to score the largest opening weekend for an R-rated movie ever, then continuing to perform week after week ultimately taking in over $700 million worldwide. Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy and Bill Hader lead the cast of “IT: Chapter Two” as the sequel picks up with the characters from the first film as adults 27 years later. While not too much is known about the follow-up just yet, we obviously know from the book and previous mini-series that a devastating phone call brings "The Losers Club" back together and back to Derry, Maine. (Premieres: 9/6)
“Get Out” was my favorite film of 2017 and so it goes without saying that I can't wait to see what writer/director Jordan Peele has up his sleeve next. Set in present day along the iconic Northern California coastline, “Us,” stars Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson, a woman returning to her childhood home with her husband, Gabe (Black Panther’s Winston Duke), and their two children (Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex) for an idyllic summer getaway. Haunted by an unexplainable and unresolved trauma from her past and compounded by a string of eerie coincidences, Adelaide feels her paranoia elevate to high-alert as she grows increasingly certain that something bad is going to befall her family. The teaser trailer released on Christmas Day absolutely piqued my intrigue and I need to neither see nor hear anything more about this movie before walking into the theater opening night. Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Cali Sheldon, and Noelle Sheldon co-star. (Premieres: 3/22)
2. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino's latest film is set in the late ‘60s and focuses on Charles Manson victim Sharon Tate's next door neighbor, fictional TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Rick Booth (Brad Pitt). Though both DiCaprio and Pitt have worked with Tarantino before, this will be the first time the two mega-stars will share the screen. While Dalton and Booth's odyssey will undoubtedly serve as the focus of the film, Tarantino has gone on record saying this is the closest thing he's done to “Pulp Fiction” since that breakout film of his 25 years ago. Naturally, this leads one to believe “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” will have the kind of sprawling narrative and ensemble cast of characters that film sported. Speaking of ensembles, the film will co-star Al Pacino, Damien Lewis, Dakota Fanning, James Marsden, Lena Dunham, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen with Margot Robbie taking on the role of Tate and Damon Herrimon taking on the role of Manson (a role he'll also be playing in Netflix's second season of the David Fincher-produced “Mindhunter”). (Premieres: 8/9)
1. Avengers: Endgame
Not since maybe “The Dark Knight Rises” have I anticipated a film more. Sure, ‘The Last Jedi’ was an exciting build-up as was the anticipation for ‘Infinity War,’ but both of those films were chapters in an ongoing story whereas ‘Endgame,’ as with ‘Rises,’ is the finale of something special; something that has come to define a large portion of my life and growth alongside cinema. Up until last month though, not even a title was known for what this fourth ‘Avengers’ film might end up being and now, as we have the title and have actually seen images from the film, it's still hard to believe it actually exists, that things will in fact be coming to an end, and that we will be able to watch the culmination of all of this in theaters in less than four months time. There's really nothing more to say, “Avengers: Endgame” is easily my most anticipated movie of the year. It's the movie I absolutely must see in 2019 and would pick as the only movie to see if I were forced into such circumstances. Let the countdown begin! (Premieres: 4/26)
by Philip Price
Director: Neil Burger
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart & Nicole Kidman
Runtime: 2 hours & 6 minutes
Charming is the key word here. You will be charmed. “The Upside” is charming. Charmed in the sense not that The Upside will put you under a spell necessarily, but more in the sense of it being a pure pleasure; a delight, if you will. Many a foreign films are re-tooled into American stories so as to make the context more familiar and the circumstances more relatable/understandable, but oddly enough the 2011 French film, “The Intouchables,” might be the last foreign film to come to mind when considering what would benefit from a re-contextualization as it, by virtue of its broad and rather simple odd-couple premise, feels the least foreign in terms of beats and emotions relayed. Still, for one reason or another it was deemed a big enough hit overseas and therefore must have been doing enough right to make a stateside studio want to re-make it once more (it has already been re-made in India as well as having a Spanish-language re-make to boot) and so why not hire the likes of Walter White and the most reliable comic actor of the moment to bring it to a wider, English-speaking audience? Thus, “The Upside” was born and first premiered on the festival circuit back in the fall of 2017 but was shelved and sold off following the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations. Eventually bought by STX Entertainment, the studio is either hoping people overlook the time of year in which they are dumping this into theaters and simply trust the inspired pairing of Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart or they are just trying to unload what is sure to make some money, but what they ultimately realize was always an unnecessary piece of cinema. And yet, unnecessary as it may be, the inspired pairing of Cranston and Hart is what makes director Neil Burger's (“Limitless”) re-make of the film a film with genuine heart and even a little insightful substance from time to time rather than that of a film completely devoid of any charm or wit that exists solely as an opportunity to replicate a previous winning formula. “The Upside” is certainly formula and it goes without saying any seasoned movie-goer will know to expect every beat this hits, but that doesn't mean it's neither appealing nor endearing as it strokes its familiar elements to the point it is these charming qualities that stand out most.
So, in this third re-make based on the true story of the life of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo follows a paralyzed billionaire, Philip Lacasse (Cranston), who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a recently paroled convict, Dell Scott (Hart), whom he hires to take care of him. Naturally, things don't begin this way as Lacasse, who has lost all ability to move from the neck down due to a paragliding accident, has seemingly suffered what is a far greater loss in the death of his wife. As a result, and despite his business manager, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), doing all she can to double as his personal assistant, Lacasse simply has no drive to live any longer. As Lacasse, Cranston plays the guy with a hard emphasis on the "Do Not Resuscitate (DNR)" code and partly hires Scott due to his inexperience and the fact he'll undoubtedly mess up bad enough he'll end up inadvertently killing him. Kidman's Yvonne clearly has feelings for her boss in that there is a genuine care for him present (though it should be noted Kidman is completely wasted and her character arc forced), but she also knows what he's up to when he hires Scott who-it's worth mentioning-stumbled into the interview by accident-and wasn't one of the many qualified candidates Yvonne likely spent too much time screening before inviting them for face to face interviews. Scott is simply looking for signatures to turn into his parole officer to prove he is actively looking for a job, but it's clear the man couldn't be less enthusiastic about actually having to work. Scott has an ex-wife (Aja Naomi King) and a pre-teen son, Anthony (Jahi Di'Allo Winston), that he owes untold amounts of child support to. To be fair, there is a desire present within Scott to mend the relationship if not with his ex, at least with his son and a desire to be a part of his son's life, but for all the drive and natural intelligence Scott displays he matches it with ten times the amount of laziness. Of course, when Scott learns Lacasse has some real money behind him and is more or less called out as a failure by Yvonne before he's even given a real shot something both sparks him to prove her wrong and, of course, to make that money.
Now, it's hard not to see the tropes already forming as regardless of their backgrounds what matters most in this movie is of course that these characters take life lessons in racial harmony from one another to both discover who they truly are and to better themselves simultaneously. It's one of those age-old tales of balance where the stiff, upper-crust white man is taught how to let himself go and that there is more to life than having wealth by the good-natured black man who society has forced to stay quiet all these years, but would you look at that-might have something valuable to contribute when given the chance. It's a trope that's almost the same as the "white savior" cliché but is only self-serving to the underdog character in regard to taking advantage of an opportunity that wouldn't otherwise have presented itself. Any way one chooses to look at it though, it's a cliché and one that I imagine can be uncomfortable for a black person to watch given these movies where black people are hired in a subservient role are over and over again utilized to bring more enlightenment to the given situation but are more times than not played as something of an unexpected twist. Like, why so surprised?
“The Upside” could have certainly gone in this direction if it so desired, but what stands the film, apart-and this is certainly due more to Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano's original screenplay than Jon Hartmere's adaptation I imagine-is the fact the script keeps both characters at enough of an unlikable difference that they balance one another out. Kevin Hart plays to certain stereotypes, but so does Bryan Cranston; they both learn to deal in their shortcomings, they both come to realize they're stronger, more capable, more intelligent, blah blah blah...whatever the case may be. The film enters this realm of routine through its back and forth of one man learning a lesson from being around the other, applying it to his personal life, and then the counterpart doing the same thing until they come to this mutual understanding that despite their obvious differences...they're actually pretty good for one another. It's a system of storytelling that has proved successful time and time again and it will continue to be recycled over and over long after this third re-make of an oft-forgotten French movie is also forgotten, but it's used so often because it makes the audience automatically feel better about humanity. When such formulas are brewed effectively though, they make the audience want to feel better about themselves and to its credit – “The Upside” accomplishes this more than it doesn't.
In fact, “The Upside” falls somewhere in the middle if we're measuring how effective it is in executing said tropes and archetypes. It is humbling because while we aren't meant to immediately like either of these characters it's not hard to appreciate why they feel the way they do coming from the circumstances laid out for the viewer. Further, it is the performances and camaraderie of Hart and Cranston that elevates the material from formulaic to that aforementioned quality of endearing. Hart is able to garner enough of the spotlight early on that the script and Burger are able to allow him ample opportunity to flex his chops as an actual actor while dropping in the expected bits of humor that are standard with any movie Hart appears. I'm not saying it's necessary, but maybe one day Hart will make a film where he doesn't allow himself the reliance on his sense of humor to free him from a scene or scenario that is otherwise meant to carry real weight, but for now – “The Upside” is a nice step in a more interesting direction as the comedian does deal in a handful of heavier moments than we have been conditioned to see him perform and handles them with a rawness that is fresh and kind of invigorating.
Cranston is of course known for his more dramatic work though, and serves as a good foil for Hart as he plays along in the "guess what crazy thing the funny guy might do next," game taking Lacasse through the necessary arc of depressed, on the mend, spiraling back downward, and then of course through to a redemption into peace and tranquility where all he was searching for in life is revealed to him as he simultaneously improves the quality of life for those around him either through his money or newfound perspective and company. This may sound rather dismissive, but it's not because Cranston is giving a bad performance it's just because this is the kind of performance the man could give in his sleep. The lone exception is a scene between him and Julianna Margulies where the two are left alone and some small, inescapable truths are captured and therefore a sense of raw (there's that word again) honesty is generated. These moments feel rare because the majority of the film does adhere to this manufactured sense of familiar story beats, so when it breaks from the norm to get real about the circumstances each of these men are facing and the characters themselves are then forced to confront these realities as well, they really land. It also helps that Burger and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh lend the film a tangibility through both its contrasting environments and the style of the movements the camera makes depending on which environment we're in. “The Upside” makes it clear things aren't always pretty even when life sends us through a comedy and/or tragedy of errors, but that what makes the difference is which way you care to categorize it and how you choose to take away the life lessons it intends to teach you; lucky for most of us, “The Upside” decides to interpret these in a mostly - say it with me - charming way.
by Philip Price
Director: Adam Robitel
Starring: Deborah Ann Woll, Taylor Russell & Logan Miller
Runtime: 1 hour & 39 minutes
I have seen about 32 ‘Saw’ movies and, in all honesty, could take or leave a PG-13 version of those movies that decided to utilize that same premise while also capitalizing on the recent fad of going with your friends to an "escape room" and seeing if you can figure out the clues in enough time to, well...escape. It's a nice little riff writer/director Adam Robitel (“Insidious: The Last Key”) has come up with, sure, but he's essentially re-contextualized that aforementioned Natali picture for modern audiences as the synopsis for Cube is surprisingly accurate for Robitel's “Escape Room.” "Six complete strangers of widely varying personality types are involuntarily placed in an endless maze containing deadly traps." Change that "involuntarily" to "voluntarily" and you have yourself a whole new movie. Despite the glaring similarities between itself and a number of other subgenre peers though, “Escape Room” still manages to make itself feel fresh in ways that emphasize the journey rather than leave it all up to the destination. “Escape Room” doesn't necessarily improve upon any of these well-worn tropes, but it isn't a completely wasteful take on the premise either; it doesn't re-invent the wheel, but it re-designs it to the extent a wheel can be re-designed.
Our core group of strangers is made up of the reclusive, but savant-like college student Zoey (Taylor Russell), the cocky corporate suit Jason (Jay Ellis), the guy who probably dropped out of high school and now can't even catch a break bagging groceries, Ben (Logan Miller), the no-nonsense, but mysterious Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), the escape room-obsessed Danny (Nik Dodani), and the ineffable yet highly underrated Tyler Labine as Mike-the old guy of the group who's just excited to be doing something other than driving his eighteen-wheeler for a change. These six people are each presented with mystery boxes goading them into a game put on by what is supposed to be a new, higher-level experience of escape room than typically presented to the average consumer with the prize for the person who wins is a sweet little stash of cash valued at $10,000. The movie wastes no time setting-up who these characters are or what their motivations might be for getting involved in what is obviously a shady bit of dealing. Sure, none of them are counting on walking into a murder maze house, but when you get an inexplicable mystery box that promises you a cash reward that is reason enough to be suspicious in this day and age. Here's the thing though, once the movie actually gets its players into the first room and begins testing their wits and limits it's easy to let go of all the extraneous information and logic leaps and instead allow yourself to simply be swept up in the reality show-vibe of it all as the puzzles and circumstances the characters have to find their way out remain both intriguing and fresh enough to simultaneously hold your interest while fending off any critical inquiries.
Per the titular confined areas each is both slickly designed and intended to elicit instinctual reactions from the charming ensemble as not only do they come to figure out their wits are what's needed to help them escape, but so is the collective history of the individuals present. The past of each individual brought into play informing their odds of getting out might be an obvious trope given it will of course ultimately lead to a connective strand between each so as to help define why they specifically were selected, but regardless-it's always fun to try and piece together what you, the viewer, believes the connection might be with the answer rarely proving to be disappointing even if it's not what one initially thought it to be. Furthermore, the inventiveness of each of the rooms our core group of characters are placed in is alarmingly shocking given the timing of release and genre, but writer/director Robitel has crafted what is more a thriller than a gore-fest of a ‘Saw’ ripoff where the characters are being threatened with more imminent pain if not ultimately death whereas something like ‘Saw,’ due to its R-rating of course, was more in your face about how violent the traps were and how gruesome the deaths would be. Working within the PG-13 range though, Robitel has been forced to come up with if not necessarily more complex puzzles, ones that at least tend to rely more on the actual function and how it might elude those attempting to uncover the necessary clues rather than only the design of a trap that will allow it to ultimately kill someone. The first room, as is seen in the trailers, is essentially a large oven whereas the second is a log cabin that, when the players do finally escape said room, are in fact led outside, but not in the fashion they might have hoped for. Maybe the most impressive room featured in the film though is a pool hall, with a fully stocked bar and billiards table, with the twist being that it is upside down and DOES NOT come with a singing Meryl Streep. There are features within each of the rooms that would be cruel to disclose here, but suffice to say each features enough twists that things never feel routine, but are rather fresh in their execution so as to keep the audience convinced all they need from this movie is the same scenario repeated over and over with different, more creative, and more twisted conditions.
Where “Escape Room” meets its greatest challenge given it is technically a horror film and therefore makes its greatest mistake is in coming to its conclusion. The problem being – “Escape Room” has about two endings too many with an actual ending that feels like a prologue or post-credits scene of some sort that the studio didn't trust the audience would sit around and wait on to see. One could get up and walk out of the film ten minutes prior to the credits beginning to roll and they would undoubtedly have a more positive reaction to the film than they would had they remained in their seats and still felt as if they'd seen a complete story with an ambiguous enough ending that they could probably cobble together their own theory that would be infinitely better than the one “Escape Room” then tacks onto itself. Major complaint aside though, the horror genre has always been bad about attempting to set-up sequels in the final moments of the film and while “Escape Room” takes this to the next level dedicating not only moments, but several scenes and several unnecessary minutes, there is some merit to the idea of this film as the beginning of a franchise. Honestly, I wouldn't be mad if every January for the next six January's audiences were treated to a new group of folks coming together to figure out puzzles and how their pasts are similar only to have Russell's Zoey (oh, come on-you knew from the marketing she'd be the final girl) return at random times to remind you this is in fact a single universe and the mythology is richer than you remember it being if not as rich as the studio heads would like to imagine it is themselves. I'd be down for that simply because I'd rather watch a movie that knows it's formula but knows how to execute that formula effectively rather than a movie trying to ape a known trend for little more than profit. Here's looking at you, “The Devil Inside.”
by Philip Price
Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams & Steve Carell
Runtime: 2 hours & 12 minutes
Doing what is right is boring. Following the rules is boring. Doing what is wrong is entertaining. Bending and breaking the rules is amusing. Movies should not be made about politicians but given most politicians don't do the right thing rather often and tend to break and bend the rules to fit their own needs and agenda as frequently as they need to it is no surprise there are plenty of television shows and movies based around and on political figures. There is a brief scene in Adam McKay's latest film, “Vice,” based around the life of Vice President Dick Cheney where he is teaching one of his daughter's how to fish and she asks if the trick of baiting the fish with a live worm is right or wrong-you know, morally. Cheney replies that, "It's not right or wrong, it's just fishing." His daughter admits to not wanting to hurt the worm, but her father summarizes his justification for the sport by stating, "You find out what they want, and you use it to catch them. The family gets to eat." It is with this perspective that Cheney seemed to approach his political career as well-it also exemplifies how every single line and aspect of McKay's film is integral to the portrait the writer and filmmaker is painting. "It's not right or wrong, it's just what needs to be done." What McKay is really exploring through “Vice” though, is this idea of how does a man go on to become who he is? The film describes life as being a series of events that contain certain moments that are so delicate, that they are akin to a stack of teacups with a saucer in between each where-at any moment-one could fall in any direction and change the course of the future forever. Unfortunately, there's no way to know the future and which way things will fall, but while McKay is keen to note that Cheney more or less fell into the roles he would eventually allow to define the purpose of his life largely due to the involvement of his wife, what he seems particularly interested in dissecting is how Cheney came to view the job of serving the country and how he interpreted that responsibility as it becomes very clear that Cheney and his staff were experts at interpreting things strictly in the way they wanted and in what would benefit their cause best. What McKay is truly attempting to do is bring about a case concerning how Cheney had his hands in so many pies, either for reasons of his own agenda or for what he truly thought was best for the country (it's hard to tell from one issue to the next), and that the result of these meddling's effectively changed the course of history. McKay wants the viewer to not only read that tagline that could easily be misconstrued as a piece of hyperbole and understand it, but to grasp it and take to heart; to truly understand the ramifications of this single man's actions in determining the fate of millions upon millions of other people's lives.
Following Cheney's desire to become the most powerful Vice President in America's history (which doesn't occur until late in life when the opportunity presents itself), “Vice” intercuts different periods of the man's life so as to show where he came from and how certain events shaped where he would go. The "how" is in the meaning we elicit from these editing choices and like with McKay's “The Big Short,” the filmmaker bucks traditional structure and style techniques to bring us his own, unfiltered version of if not exactly how things actually played out at least the best attempt at encapsulating the feelings that might have been experienced in the given situations. Beginning in Wyoming in 1963 insight is gained from the get-go as we're seemingly meant to be surprised by the fact Cheney was not always the "brass tacks" kind of guy he portrayed himself as in the White House (keep in mind, my review is written from the perspective of someone who was 14 when George W. was first elected President). Cheney was a middling student who only got into Yale because his girlfriend and future wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), pulled some strings to get him there, but even then he didn't take school serious enough to actually go to class and was kicked out and resorted to hanging telephone wire for the state until Lynne gave him a wake-up call after she had to bail him out of jail for the second time. McKay starts here, but in between these early instances we see the opposite end of the spectrum as Cheney is serving as the Vice President of the U.S. on the day of the worst terror attack to ever hit American soil. The juxtaposition in who Cheney was and who he obviously becomes is intended to rope us into this journey and for a viewer who was unaware of the silent and surly-seeming bureaucrat that served under Bush Jr. for eight years I was hooked. McKay has a way of crafting what might seem like boring or overly-complicated subject matters into streamlined pieces of entertainment that function as such largely because of the way he and editor Hank Corwin piece them together. McKay's screenplays are to be acknowledged as well given the detoured tangents the filmmaker will take in order to fully exercise a point or creatively convey an idea that might otherwise be too dense or uninteresting to deliver solely through a scene of exposition. Furthermore, McKay and co. choose a framing device in the film that deals with a narrator whose credibility can't really be justified as more of what he says than not would have had to have come from research material limited to what was available to any average civilian, but while the reliance of this narrator sometimes comes into question, the idea of this kindred connection is an ambitious if not necessarily successfully executed one.
And so, to illustrate what kind of man Cheney was-whether fair or not-but due to Cheney's intense sense of privacy, McKay had no choice but to and takes certain liberties with the material so as to make his point in both as clever and clean a way as possible. It is in these instances that the film not only separates itself from ilk of the same genre, but that it becomes a bold movie that isn't so much following its own agenda, but leaning on the facts McKay has to work with to elicit this fascinating story of a man completely motivated by his wife-who would have likely had a pretty average life had he not married who he married in a time when women were expected to be the keepers of domesticity-who comes to be motivated not necessarily by a need for power, but something a little less generic than this-a sense of control more so than power, a sense of utilizing this position of the Presidency for the kind of power he felt the role was entitled to and further, wanting to surround himself with family and friends who he believed he could trust with such power and responsibility. “Vice” makes it very clear that Cheney was not this kind of naturally insidious creature, but that he did care about these public servant positions and the responsibilities that came with them, but it doesn't go without noting that he also found it satisfying to be able to play in this landscape in a way that fed this desire to constantly prove he'd found something he was genuinely good at. More than showing us Cheney's early missteps to show he in fact had these missteps or took some early hits though, McKay shows us this part of his subject's life so as to emphasize the reasons why Cheney found it so hard to let go once, he found this thing he excelled at. There is a certain element in me that believes there are politicians who truly hope to effect change in the world as well as being those who set a personal goal for themselves and simply enjoy playing whatever angle it takes to reach their desired endgame. There is both risk and reward in this and it is no doubt exhilarating, but this could be done outside the political arena; it just so happens this is where Cheney found his calling and continued to play out different scenarios for years and years. I mean, they call it the "political arena" for a reason, right? To the point of what McKay does with his film to create this hyper-reality around what might be considered by some a rather mundane world is to say that, in instances when there is no way of knowing how certain conversations went, but we understand that such conversations must have occurred that instead of trying to make up what might have been the closest version of reality McKay instead plays up the idea that, in our minds, such a turning point in the characters' lives must have felt like a big turning point in their lives and ups the drama of it by having Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who portray the former Vice President and his wife, play the scene as if they were delivering Shakespearean soliloquies.
There's truly so much to unpack with “Vice” that it feels after three lengthy paragraphs I've only scratched the surface of covering what is included in McKay's ambition. Maybe my favorite thing about the film though, is the frankness with which Bale's Cheney comprehends and then addresses the fact he is having the multiple heart attacks he experiences throughout his lifetime. Never does it play these well-known facets for anything other than acknowledging they happened and Bale, in all his transformative glory, shines most when he plays the character as straight and narrow as Cheney wanted people to perceive him to be. There is a great scene, and another example of McKay's inventiveness, that exemplifies Cheney's ability to make even the most outlandish ideas seem appealing that is comedic gold; revolving around a puppet joke in Gerald Ford's (Bill Camp) oval office the bit rallies against the dry mentality Cheney naturally possessed. Adams' is equally as impressive as her co-star in that without Lynne Cheney there would be no Dick Cheney; Lynne didn't have the options many women have today and so she stood beside her man (not behind him), helping she and him ascend into the most elite of the elite-accomplishing her own many ambitions along the way. Both Sam Rockwell and especially Steve Carell (in his fourth collaboration with McKay) are also afforded plenty of time to shine as George W. and two-time Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, respectfully. One can venture to guess how fun Rockwell's interpretation of Bush Jr. is, but it is the revelation of the kind of scoundrel Rumsfeld was and how his unprofessional temperament and abrasive attitude make him endearing despite himself. This, coupled with the fact Carell simply understands how to play McKay's material and deliver the type of comedy McKay writes, elevates Carell's performance to a stand-out. The thing about McKay (a staunch liberal) and his movie though, is that it may very well misjudge those who have differing views than his own; this audience McKay is no doubt hoping might take something away from the experience of watching “Vice” (if they watch it at all) is more likely to be offended by Lynne saying "God damnit" than they will gawk at the fact Cheney was a dropout and a drunk-these things will only make him more "relatable" for shortcomings are only shortcomings if the person's opinions differ-otherwise, such shortcomings are just endearing. That Cheney utilized Fox News in order to squash action on global warming, get tax cuts for the super-rich, and gut regulations for massive corporations will only be viewed as smart rather than smarmy.
If this is beginning to sound like a hatchet job understand that it is not and that it does in fact shine just as much of a light on Cheney's admirable qualities as it does his shortcomings-however few McKay might believe those to be. For instance, Cheney clearly loved both of his daughters, Mary (Alison Pill) and Liz (Lily Rabe), very much and the film delivers a well-rounded picture of him as a parent. The caveat to this story that “Vice” takes into consideration fairly heavily is that Mary is gay and because of this and because of the Republican party's general attitude toward homosexuality and more specifically-gay marriage-that Cheney ultimately refused to do anything politically to shed a negative light on his daughter. This very much communicates a sense of compassion in that he will not sacrifice the happiness of his daughter for the advancement of his career (a difficult thing to do for a man who knows how hard he's worked to not only be good at something, but successful at that something as well). The reveal of Mary's sexual preference comes in a scene after Cheney first observes George W. at a White House party during the Reagan administration where he comments that, "there is too much unconditional love there" and then discusses his odds of winning the position of the President in the future with Lynne. The revelation that his daughter is gay, of course, would make things very hard for Cheney to get elected given his opponent would undoubtedly go after Mary. I realize that's repeated information, but it seems to warrant stressing. This leads to a montage of sorts where McKay sets up a fake ending of "what ifs" with false text cards and all that contain information around what could or might have been had George W. not reared his head and opened the option of allowing Cheney back into politics once more. It's a fun little moment that almost takes you out of the movie, but when the impact of it hits-this impact that, had Bush not come a calling, that so much of what has shaped our present social and political climate might be different-it really hits. As previously stated, McKay uses montage to convey the cause and effect of Cheney's actions, but never is this clearer than in the final, culminating moment when Cheney is having open heart surgery as is intercut with Liz running for one of Wyoming's two senate seats where he's ultimately the one to make a call that will see the chained legacy of power continue. It is a heartbreaking moment to conclude one’s film with, but it finalizes an opinion on what the writer/director ultimately felt was more valuable to Cheney-maintaining control in a position of power. Cheney may have implemented a "soft-touch" approach in his political dealings so as to have others do his bidding for him while laying the groundwork through them and being present in as many aspects of the administration as possible, but McKay does the opposite with “Vice” - he's still present in every aspect, but it's clear to anyone paying attention that it's his fingerprints all over the film; fingerprints that allow the film to play as a provocative, thoughtful, and all-around entertaining portrait of one of the most influential men to ever exist in American politics.