Movie Review: Vice

I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen as I watched Christian Bale deliver a stellar performance as Dick Cheney. The transformation is a remarkable one: Bale gained forty pounds and adopted the mannerisms, subdued voice, and lumbering gait of the former vice president.

It is not surprising that Bale has been nominated for a Golden Globe. In fact, Vice has six Golden Globe nominations—Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, Screenplay, Motion Picture— and is poised to dominate the upcoming award season.

Amy Adams boldly portrays Lynne Cheney, effectively capturing the former Second Lady’s superior intellect and ambition. Without her not-so-gentle prodding, Dick Cheney would not have evolved beyond his two DUIs and limited prospects in Wyoming.

Determined to keep Lynne in his life, Cheney agrees to straighten out. At first, quiet and unassuming, he gradually develops a taste for power and an ability to read people.

I was both fascinated—and repelled—by the manipulative skills that enabled Cheney to rise from congressional intern to White House Chief of Staff to CEO of an oil-field services company to vice-president. Persuading a presidential candidate to abdicate major responsibilities is a testament to his well-honed skills.

While supporting actors Steve Carrell and Sam Rockwell deliver excellent performances as Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, their roles are not as fleshed out as Bale’s.

Writer-director Adam McKay weaves in humor and irreverence with flashbacks to pivotal events throughout the six-decade span of the film. References to American Idol and Survivor collide with footage of torture and bombings. Spoiler alert: Halfway through the film, McKay teases us with a false ending, one that would have pleased many of us.

A thought-provoking film!


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Movie Review: The Old Man & The Gun

This story is mostly true.

And so begins an entertaining film based on the real-life story of Forrest Tucker (beautifully played by Robert Redford), a lifelong criminal who specializes in bank robberies and prison escapes. This polite, charismatic thief is the leader of the Old Timer’s Gang, a trio of criminals that includes Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits).

Set in the early 1980s during one of the Gang’s last crime sprees across the American southwest, the storyline alternates between actual bank robberies, police chases led by Texas detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), and Tucker’s low-key love affair with Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a widow he picks up on the side of the road.

While crimes are planned and committed, there is no real violence. Tucker owns a gun, but he doesn’t fire it. Instead, he charms tellers and bank managers into handing over their cash and then leaves with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. Afterward, the victims comment on Tucker’s gentlemanly behavior.

Writer/director David Lowery succeeds in maintaining a lighthearted tone throughout most of the film. I especially enjoyed watching Jewel and Tucker flirt and spar during their dates. But the scenes with Casey Affleck move very slowly. I believe he was miscast as the detective obsessed with capturing the Gang, in particular Tucker.

At age 82, Robert Redford still manages to command the screen with his mature presence and mega-watt smile. Unfortunately, The Old Man & The Gun is his last film. In August, Redford announced his retirement from acting.

A must-see film and a fitting farewell to a movie legend!


Movie Review: The Bookshop

Set in an English coastal town circa 1959, this film is based on Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel and directed by Isabel Coixet.

Emily Mortimer delivers an excellent performance as Florence Green, a young, idealistic widow who decides to transform a run-down building (aptly called the Old House) into a bookshop. Unfortunately, she lives in a community filled with non-readers. The local bank manager falls asleep after reading three pages of any novel, and Florence’s assistant (delightfully played by Honor Kneafsey) states upfront that she doesn’t read.

But these are the least of Emily’s worries.

Society matron Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) is determined to convert the Old House into an arts center, showcasing lectures and chamber music concerts. A power struggle ensues with Violet’s ruthlessness in full display.

As Florence’s obstacles increase, she finds an unlikely ally in Edmund Brundish (well played by Bill Nighy), a reclusive widower who loves to read. When we first meet Edmund, he is tearing off and burning the dust jacket from a book. While he likes to read, he dislikes the thought that actual people wrote the books. Instead, he prefers to believe that these books came about through “spontaneous generation.”

The film moves at a leisurely pace with little action. In fact, most of the drama seems to occur over a cup of tea. If you haven’t read the novel, prepare yourself for an unexpected ending.

While some reviewers have criticized the voice-over narration, I found it useful for plot development. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the voice belonged to Julie Christie.

An excellent film that will appeal to fans of bricks-and-mortar bookstores, seaside villages, and Bill Nighy.


Movie Review: First Man

Ryan Gosling and Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle reconnect to bring the historic Apollo 11 moon mission to the big screen.

Based on the authorized biography by James R. Hansen, this film focuses on the years 1961-1969, highlighting the many setbacks and sacrifices encountered by Neil Armstrong (well played by Gosling) and the other astronauts in the lead-up the moon landing.

On that momentous July day in 1969, I joined millions of people worldwide and watched as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and delivered those famous lines: “The Eagle has landed” and “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Armstrong quickly assumed a global hero status that followed him throughout his life. Very little was known about his past and the family tragedy he faced before joining NASA.

A Korean War vet and test pilot, he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) lost their two-year-old daughter Karen to complications from a brain tumor. According to this film, Karen’s untimely death contributed to Armstrong’s solitary nature and robotic self-discipline.

Gosling’s portrayal is spot on. The stony silences, clipped responses to interview questions, and dedication to his work reveal his stoicism. In fact, he was chosen to be the first man on the moon because of his resistance to drama.

Foy delivers an outstanding performance as Janet, Armstrong’s first wife. She doesn’t hesitate to scold her husband into having a sit-down conversation with their two sons before take-off. Well aware of the dangers inherent in the mission, Janet wanted their sons to be prepared for all outcomes. I wouldn’t be too surprised if Claire Foy receives an Oscar nod in the supporting actress category.

The cinematography is outstanding. I could easily imagine myself inside the cramped lunar module and experienced several heart-stopping moments as the spacecraft hurtled toward the crater-pocked surface of the moon. Another possible Oscar nod to Linus Sandgren.

There was some early criticism regarding the lack of a close-up of the American flag. I believe Chazelle made a wise decision, choosing instead to portray Armstrong’s wordless tribute to his daughter as he walked on the moon.

A thought-provoking film!


Movie Review: A Star is Born

So much to love in this beautifully crafted movie that transcends the label of “remake.”

Bradley Cooper took a risk when he decided to launch his directorial debut with the fourth version of a classic. And equally (if not more) impressive…he delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as battered rock star Jackson Maine. Cooper spent years preparing for the film, including many months of learning how to sing and play the guitar.

In a recent interview, Lady Gaga said: “I honestly believe that there’s no other actor on the planet that could have played this role. It’s too specific, and it’s too passion-driven….his voice when I first heard it, just came from his gut.”

Persuading Lady Gaga to take on the role of Ally, an aspiring singer who is ready to give up on her dream, was an inspired decision. Gaga sizzles in her first major movie role, bringing her extraordinary talents to a film slated to dominate the upcoming award season.

With eyes riveted to the screen, I watched as Jackson and Ally connect romantically and musically in this dramatic tale of love and ambition. After listening to Ally’s spell-binding rendition of “La Vie en Rose” in a drag queen nightclub, Jackson sets out to mentor her onscreen and in real life. Ally’s rise to fame begins when Jackson coaxes her onto the stage at one of his shows. Hearing Ally sing “Shallow” was one of the most moving moments of the film.

As Ally’s star rises, Jackson’s career starts to spiral downward. In spite of having seen two of the previous versions, I was still able to remain emotionally present with the storyline.

Sam Elliott and Andrew Dice Clay deliver outstanding performances as Jackson’s half-brother and Ally’s smothering father. Fancying himself an undiscovered Frank Sinatra, Clay sprinkles humor and advice (“It’s not always the best singer who makes it”) into his scenes with Ally.

A must-see film that will linger in consciousness!


Movie Review: The Wife

Glenn Close delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Joan Castleman, the long-suffering wife, muse, and kingmaker of Nobel Prize winner Joe Castleman (Jonathon Pryce).

This film captures the chilling formality and repressed fury of a woman who has endured decades of a conventional marriage characterized by love and betrayal, comfort and compromise, fame and entitlement.

In the flashbacks to the late 1950s and early 1960s, younger versions of the characters, expertly played by Annie Stark (Glenn Close’s daughter) and Harry Lloyd, provide the backstory for this unbalanced relationship.

Young Joan Archer had writing aspirations of her own and what Professor Joe Castleman called the “golden touch.” Intrigued by her looks and talent, Joe singles out Joan and has an affair that derails his marriage and university career.

Young Joe, the professor, is more than willing to nurture this budding talent, but an unfortunate encounter with a disillusioned female author (Elizabeth McGovern) erodes young Joan’s confidence.

What follows is a plan to merge Joe’s big ideas with Joan’s golden touch. And so begins Joe’s literary career, one that catapults him onto the national and international scene with loyal, compliant Joan at his side.

The awarding of the Nobel Prize provides the catalyst for change.

It is clear from the start (even to Joe) that changes are in the air. Joan bristles with competence, ensuring the minutiae of Joe’s life are in order, while her facial expressions and curt replies tell another story. She may appear dutiful, but she is definitely not submissive.

Wannabe biographer Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) picks up on these nuances as he tries to ingratiate himself with Joan, Joe, and their son David (Max Irons). Nathaniel has thoroughly researched Joe and reached his own conclusions about the Castleman success story. All Nathaniel needs is validation from Joan or David.

Having read and enjoyed the novel by Meg Wolitzer, I found myself eagerly following each scene in this well-crafted film directed by Bjorn Runge. While there were a few minor differences—Nobel Prize vs. Helsinki Prize, Sweden vs. Finland, two children vs. three children, no sauna scene—the gripping storyline and gut-wrenching moments have been preserved.

A must-see film!


Movie Review: A Simple Favor

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Darcey Bell’s novel, I eagerly awaited the release of this psychological thriller starring Anna Kendrick (mommy blogger Stephanie) and Blake Lively (fashionista Emily).

Both actresses deliver stellar performances: Kendrick nails the part of the friendless Type-A personality who over-volunteers at her son’s school while Lively shocks and titillates as she releases her inner mean girl.

Evocative French pop songs play in the background as vulnerabilities are revealed, and secrets are shared over chilled martinis. Stephanie’s constant apologizing and awkwardness contrast with the detached ruthlessness of Emily’s character. A telling line from Emily: “Baby, if you apologize again, I’m going to have to slap the sorry out of you.”

In spite of several red flags in Emily’s behavior, Stephanie is thrilled with the budding friendship. When Emily goes missing, Stephanie steps in and helps Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding) with his son and household. Soon after the funeral, she moves in and assumes Emily’s role as wife and mother. Throughout the film Stephanie gives updates on her “vlog” as her follower count skyrockets.

From here the plot veers in unexpected directions: a corpse (assumed to be Emily’s) is found at the bottom of a lake in Michigan, Emily’s son Nicky (Ian Ho) reports that he has seen his mother, and Stephanie starts to wonder if Emily is really dead.

Determined to solve this mystery, Stephanie puts on her Nancy Drew hat and starts investigating. She sneaks into offices, breaks into filing cabinets, tracks down an ex-lover, and has a run-in with Emily’s fashion designer boss, Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend). Nylon dismisses Stephanie with a stinging barb: “Never wear a vintage Hermès scarf with a Gap T-shirt. If you were truly Emily’s friend, you’d know that.”

The more Stephanie investigates, the more she realizes how little she knows of Emily. A fact corroborated by Sean who refers to his wife as a “beautiful ghost.”

More crimes surface—arson, fraud, multiple murders—in this twisted tale of cross and double-cross. Spoiler Alert: If you’ve read the book, you’ll be taken aback by the altered ending.

A must-see film!