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Vice (2018)

If Oscar-winning funnyman Adam McKay can take the arcane, convoluted world of finance and spin it into one of the most entertaining, accessible, and enraging films of that year, then just imagine what he could do with the life of Dick Cheney?

We follow Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from his early days as a college washout, to Washington intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), to youngest chief of staff in a White House administration, to Wyoming Congressman, and eventually Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) where Cheney redefined the VP role as a defacto second president. This is the story of his 60 years shaping the annuls of political power.

If you have one reason to watch Vice, it’s the staggering performance by Bale (Hostiles). As is custom, the man completely transforms himself into his subject, gaining weight, building muscle in his neck to simulate the Cheney shoulder hunch, and going unrecognizable in startling older age makeup. He doesn’t just look the spitting image of Dick Cheney but he sounds like him too, exhibiting his cadences and mannerisms, and fully inhabiting the man every second he’s onscreen. It’s a compelling, captivating turn that ranks up there with Bale’s best. He’s beyond great but strangely nobody else is. Amy Adams (Arrival) plays Lynne Cheney, Dick’s wife and shrewd political partner, and her worst acting moment is her introductory scene where she lays into the young Cheney. It’s like an audition where the actor is hitting the wrong notes too strongly. Adams regains herself as the film carries on but never has a standout scene. Nobody else other than Bale is given the material to stand out. Rockwell (Three Billboards) and Carell (Beautiful Boy) are enjoyable and aided by impressive makeup, especially old Rumsfeld, but they’re given one note to play. Their roles become more impression than performance and both men drop out of the movie for long periods of time. The next best actor might by Tyler Perry (Gone Girl) as Colin Powell, and maybe that’s because Perry is used to brokering nonsense with his own array of nonsensical characters. He’s already the weary adult.

The meta interludes and fourth wall breaks that helped The Big Short succeed conversely are part of the problem with Vice. Most Americans know a decent amount about the Iraq War and its documented fallout, so there’s less need to have celebrities interject and explain complex scenarios and institutions (the absence of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath will always be felt). The narration by Jesse Plemons (Game Night) doesn’t feel necessary, and his ordinary identity becomes a guessing game for most of the film, trying to link him with Cheney. I was thinking he would be an Iraq War soldier and get killed later on, that way establishing a stand-in for the thousands of men and women who are no longer walking this Earth as a direct result of Cheney’s misguided action. Nope. When his identity is finally revealed you’ll go, “Oh,” and that’s it. Because he wasn’t really a character, he was a narrative device and one that didn’t stand for anything larger. The visual metaphors can also be very, very obvious. There are consistent cuts to Cheney fly-fishing in a river, meant to evoke him luring others into his desired machinations. Even the end credits feature fly-fishing imagery, in case you had forgotten about this enduring metaphor. The conclusion literally involves a heart being removed and the sequence cut along a more figurative betrayal, and you can feel McKay vigorously pointing at the screen and yelling, “See, it’s because he’s heartless, get it? Do you get it?” We get it. The documentary-style and comedic techniques that allowed The Big Short to be as entertaining and accessible, and one of the best films of 2015, are paradoxically the things that seem at odds with Vice.

The meta breaks are meant to provide a degree of comedy to the picture, which is generally absent comedy otherwise, unless you count the rise of Cheney’s reign as the darkest of comedies. I suppose Cheney’s nonchalant recognition of his heart attacks (he’s had five) could be a potential comedic lifeline if you’re being generous. One second we’re told people don’t speak in Shakespearean soliloquies in real life, and the next second the Cheneys are talking in Shakespearean verse. When it looks like the Cheneys will drop out of public office to spare their gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill) the inevitable storm of harassment, the movie has a fake-out end credit sequence to sum up their hypothetical lives. To demonstrate Cheney’s knack for making the most ridiculous statement sound statesmen, he recommends that the Oval Office team put miniature beards on a part of their anatomy and perform an adult puppet show, which draws solemn nods of approval from the others. It’s a joke that feels too glib, like the intended point is being lost by the lewd nature of the comedic aside. The only meta aspect that feels earned is the final one, where Cheney turns to the camera and directly addresses the audience, acknowledging he can feel their contempt but refuses to apologize for his actions in order to keep people safe. Because he’s having the final say, because he’s offering a rebuff to his movie, it feels more earned and fitting, and it would have had even more power if it were the only break in the movie rather than the last. It’s hard to call this a comedy; it’s more an incredulous indictment looking for its mob.

I honestly think a straightforward biopic might have been the better route for Cheney. The first half of the film is more interesting and successful because it is the more illuminating half. I never knew that Lynne Cheney’s father likely killed her mother. That’s a pretty bold charge on behalf of the filmmakers. The early Cheney years are the moments the majority of Americans don’t know about, whereas the later years have been well documented by a slew of hard-hitting documentaries, books, and journalistic exposes. There are whole movies about topics like the Valerie Plame leaking (Fair Game), the mounting mistakes after the invasion of Iraq (No End in Sight), the administration’s policy on torture (Taxi to the Dark Side, Standard Operating Procedure), the drumbeat to the war and snuffing out of critical journalism (Shock and Awe, Lions for Lambs), the missing WMDs (Green Zone, Body of Lies), the Bush deferment memos (Truth), the long-term consequences for those servicemen who survive (The Hurt Locker, The Messenger, Stop-Loss, Last Flag Flying, In the Valley of Elah, American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service) and anything that Michael Moore sets his sights on. This list is not exhaustive by any means. Because of that the film seems to become a rudimentary montage once the Iraq War kicks off, sprinting through the rest as an intended tableau of hubris as Cheney’s star and influence falls. I would rather have learned more about Cheney’s early years in the Nixon, Ford, and H.W. Bush administrations and gleaned more personal insights into the man before he becomes this shadowy, mythic figure that seems downright Machiavellian in his control of government. It’s interesting to watch Cheney and his cohorts plot their unchecked executive power behind the back of President Bush, but then what?

It’s the “then what?” question I keep revisiting with McKay’s film, trying to figure out the larger intended message, themes, and dire warnings. I feel like because of the expanse of time covered, and the meta quirks applied, that the film too often feels like it’s just scratching the surface of Cheney, providing a slight gloss to a political caricature. The biggest takeaway is the slippery slope of the “unitary executive theory,” a term you’ll hear often, that basically follows Nixon’s own words: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” This questionable interpretation of Article II of the Constitution gives the president powers that approach a monarch, which seems antithetical the Founders’ intents. McKay warns that any president could take advantage of this theory to do whatever he or she (sad trombone noise… sigh) desires. This is clearly meant to draw a line right to President Trump, but it’s not like the 45th president needs sketchy legal cover to do his misdeeds. The idea that the Justice Department memos would be a lurking danger is quaint. A bad man with power is not going to look for the rules to allow him or her to break them. The idea that a president could be above the law is also a legally specious argument and one I don’t believe our courts would readily back, even with the “unitary executive theory” (at least I hope so). With that in mind, Vice becomes a cautionary tale about the expenditure of power but lacks the adequate follow-through.

Vice is a tricky biopic for a tricky subject and I wonder if it would have worked better being stripped of its prankster, meta interjections and tricks. It’s a condemnation of Dick Cheney but it doesn’t feel like it goes far enough if McKay’s eventual thesis is that the current world problems began, or were grossly exacerbated, by the actions of Cheney. Climate change warnings going unheeded, ISIS formations going ignored, the generational consequences for unsettling the Middle East, and laying the foundation for an authoritarian strongman to be an acceptable political position for millions of Americans. These charges are clearly intended to be a denunciation of Cheney’s legacy, but the end results play out somewhat differently, like a slap on the wrist. I think Dick Cheney could even watch this movie and nod in appreciation. That seems like a mistake. McKay is still a talented writer and filmmaker that knows how to keep his movie flowing and entertaining, buoyed by an outstanding performance from Bale. It’s a movie with great components but seems to clumsily get in its own way with its presentation. If you’re going to expose Dick Cheney as a heinous manipulator of power that has wrecked havoc for billions, then maybe you don’t want to dilute your message.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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The Post (2017)

Even with the added timely benefit of championing a free press in the era of Trump, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a movie held together by big speeches and Meryl Streep. It’s the story of the Pentagon Papers but it’s told from the wrong perspective. It’s told through the reference of whether the owner of the Washington Post (Streep) will or will not publish and how this endangers her family’s financial control over the newspaper. Plenty of dismissive men doubt her because she’s a woman. It’s simply one of the least interesting versions of an important story. Streep is her standard excellent self and has a few standout moments where you can actively see her character thinking. I just don’t understand why all these talented people put so much effort into telling this version of this story. I missed the active investigation of Spotlight, how one piece lead to another and the bigger picture emerged. There was an urgency there that is strangely lacking with The Post. The question of whether she will publish is already answered. It feels like the screenplay is designed for Big Important Speeches from Important People. Tom Hanks plays the gruff editor of the newspaper and Streep’s chief scene partner. They’re enjoyable to watch, as is the large collection of great supporting actors (Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Jesse Plemons, Bruce Greenwood, and a Mr. Show reunion with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk). This is a movie that is easier to admire than like, but I don’t even know if I admire it that much. The film has to call attention to Streep’s big decision and the stakes involved by underlining just what she has to lose and reminding you how brave she’s being. When Streep leaves the U.S. Supreme Court, there’s a bevy of supportive women lined up to bask in her accomplishment. It’s a bit much and another reminder that The Post doesn’t think you’ll understand its major themes. It’s a perfectly acceptable Oscar-bait drama but it sells its subject short and its audience.

Nate’s Grade: B

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (2017)

We’ve seen this story before, the efforts to uncover the Watergate scandal and its sloppy cover-up from the perspective of Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein who tirelessly collected clues, followed leads, and investigated the facts. That movie was All The President’s Men and was terrific. This movie is all about Mark Felt, the man who was the “Deep Throat” confidential informant, and it’s a bit less than terrific. It’s hardly even a movie because Felt’s story just isn’t that interesting. The film offers little new insights into Felt as a character or his personal struggles working against his own government. The FBI director is portrayed like a glowering Bond villain. The other characters come in and out, leaving little impact except to remind you that they’re famous. Felt’s personal life is also a bore, including Diane Lane in a thankless role as his alcoholic wife distraught over Felt being passed over as the new FBI director. He also has a missing daughter who ran off to a commune. There’s one moment where Felt feels paranoid and tears apart his office, but then we simply move on. There’s not enough here to justify a full-fledged movie. Whatever writer/director Peter Landesman (Concussion) does it’s not enough to make this story interesting, and that’s because Felt’s involvement in Watergate is minimal at best. All the President’s Men was about journalists uncovering the evidence and putting together the pieces. This movie is just about a guy who knows everything and has to get it out there. It’s inherently less interesting. Even the subtitle of The Man Who Brought Down the White House seems misinformed; I’m fairly certain that was Nixon. The Mark Felt story was told better when he was merely a minimal figure in someone else’s Watergate story. Just watch All the President’s Men instead.

Nate’s Grade: C

Jackie (2016)

jackie-poster-1Jackie (Natalie Portman) is still reeling from the loss of her husband, President Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). In the weeks that followed the assassination in 1963, her life was a whirlwind of change. She was leaving the White House while another administration took control of her husband’s office and agenda. She was leaving a life of glamour and privilege and it all came to a halt. Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) is worried about the Kennedy policies getting lost as well as his own potential presidential prospects. Lyndon Johnson (John Carrol Lynch) is worried about asserting his own control. While trying to work through her grief, Jackie must protect her husband’s legacy among all the well-wishers, political vultures, and craven opportunists.

We’re left with an immersive, impressionistic look at America’s most famous first lady since it’s hard to distinguish the layers of performance from the woman herself. She was used to adopting the façade of what the public expected of her, how her husband’s friends looks at her with desire and dismissiveness, and the differences between her private life and her public persona. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the interior space of a famous woman that so many people think they know well because of her glamour and television appearances, but do they really? Her identity is in free fall. She gave up everything for this man and now he is gone and her cherished position is gone. It’s said each first lady leaves her stamp on the office, and now Ladybird Johnson is already itching to undo that stamp, erasing Jackie’s presence and supplanting it. Will these last few days define her and will they define her husband? While dealing with raw grief, Jackie also takes the position of being the first to protect her husband’s legacy. While planning the particulars of the funeral march and exact burial site, she’s really framing his place in the greater annuls of history, tragically cut short and questionably memorable. His life has been taken from her and now the only thing she can do is protect his place in history. The funeral details and conflicts they consign the new Johnson administration to are interesting, as is Jackie’s simmering disdain for the Johnsons, but it’s more than just placation; Jackie has an underrated knack for theatrical optics. The country is in mourning, just like its (former) first lady, and she offers a spectacle as an outlet. Some term it vanity and even Jackie admits that many aspects were for her, for her grief, for her rage at the world and her doubters, for her wounded soul searching for meaning. She wanted the American public to see her in mourning but she wanted just as much to see them in mourning too.

jackie-natalie-portman-today-161006-tease-02_e549f017f2a99114fefe91579e669542-today-inline-largeEschewing the standard cradle-to-grave biopic, as well the noveau approach of using one clarifying moment to better examine and sum up the person (see: Selma, Steve Jobs), Noah Oppenheim’s script is a triptych, a hypnotic exploration that zips along non-linear but thematically-tethered memories. It’s a more interesting approach because we’re not locked into a linear progression of plot events, though the immediate aftermath and her interview with the Newsweek reporter (Billy Crudup) serve as the directional compass. It also provides a clever conceit for meta-textual levels. We have scenes that lay as direct conflict with the public Jackie and the private Jackie, and we have scenes that lay into the different levels of performance, from her show model tour of the White House furnishings and fixings to putting on the brave face to speak to her children. Director Pablo Larraine (No, Neruda) shoots the movie in a style reminiscent of its 1960s time period, with a film stock that blends the difference between documentary and recreation, further adding another stylistic level to the proceedings. The various threads of connectivity are so much more interesting to dissect with this storytelling approach and it makes the movie a much deeper and more contemplative experience to unpack.

There’s a scene in the middle of Jackie that stood out to me. During a night of drinking, Jackie puts on the record for the Broadway production of Camelot and wanders the large empty spaces of the people’s house. For my younger readers, the Kennedy administration was dubbed by many as “Camelot,” first coined by Jackie, out of a sense of its idealism, youth, and inspirational promise to change the world into a nobler place. It’s practically a mythical time and the real people get lost amidst the romantic spectacle. Nowadays, our presidents can often be the same mythical figures as the kings of old, figureheads whose humanity and details we iron out and soften as we eulogize and entomb them. The music echoes through the different chambers but there’s no one to hear it, no one to enjoy it, the vast emptiness communicating much of Jackie’s anguish. “There will be great presidents again but there will never be another Camelot,” she says. That moment is left as a passing memory, a picture of nostalgia that will only have its realism dampen in time as it becomes enshrined in American myth making. Amidst all her privilege and esteem, there is an existential sense of loss for Jackie and the nation as a whole into the turbulent 60s.

The other rich aspect is that we are watching a woman process her grief in real-time and it can often put a lump in your throat. I challenge anyone not to feel an outpouring of empathy when Jackie has to explain to her two very young children why daddy isn’t coming back from Dallas, having to explain something horrendous to those so innocent. In some scenes it feels like Jackie is numb to the world around her, focused on the little things as an escape from her horrible reality and its trauma. We do get a recreation of that fateful day in Dallas twice. The first is the immediate aftermath with Jackie bloodied and protected by the Secret Service, keeping her at a distance from us too in the audience. The next is a closer view inside the car as we’re with Jackie when the awful event happens, and the sudden shock of gore is still a disturbing gut-punch no matter how much you anticipate the moment. We watch her crazed instincts trying to collect the pieces of her beautiful and broken husband, stressing she was trying to keep everything together, figuratively and literally. The scene plays out longer and it serves as an emotional climax to the film, a frank reminder that for everything people believe they know about this woman, at heart, for all her riches and fame and privilege, she is simply a human being trying to make sense of death. It’s this final moment in the car that reminds us.

jackie-the-movie-natalie-portman-the-trailer-tom-lorenzo-site-8This is an acting showcase and Portman (Black Swan) excels, delivering the best female performance I’ve seen this year at the movies. It’s an Oscar bait dream role and she nails it. She goes beyond mere imitation though Portman does an excellent job of that. Thanks to critic/blogger Jeffrey Wells for this great quote about the imitable real-life Jackie from author Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Right Stuff: “She had a certain Southern smile, which she had perhaps picked up at Foxcroft School, in Virginia, and her quiet voice, which came through her teeth, as revealed by the smile. She barely moved her lower jaw when she talked. The words seemed to slip between her teeth like exceedingly small slippery pearls.” Portman stunned me early with her exquisite recreation of Jackie and then she stunned me moments later with the depth of emotion she was able to convey in the scene where she stares into the Air Force One mirror, dabbing her husband’s blood from her face as her eyes are swollen with tears. Lorraine favors plenty of exacting close-ups to watch the array of emotions play across her face. She has moments of strength, moments of pettiness, moments of heart-tugging lows and weakness, and Portman is always fascinating, holding your attention rapt as you study her study. It’s a mesmerizing performance and one that deserves to earn Portman her second gold statue.

Jackie is a movie that has stayed with me for days after I’ve seen it. The exceptional and empathetic work by Portman is the first thing I recall, and then the thematic and symbolic relevance of the storylines as they fold on top of one another, providing a hypnotic and immersive portrait of a very famous woman who sought and spurned the spotlight. As far as I’m concerned this is the definitive film presentation of Jackie and Portman’s searing performance is the dazzling standard that won’t be beat. You walk away having additional appreciation for this woman but also further curiosity. The movie doesn’t expressly state who she is as a human being, providing a range of personas, some that conflict with one another, and allows you to put it all together for your interpretation. It’s a bold gambit and a fitting gesture for a woman defined by others’ perceptions.

Nate’s Grade: A-

 

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-poster-1Before I begin my review, I feel the need to come to the defense of Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels (Precious). Despite what Internet message boards and detractors may have you believe, it was never the man’s intention to insert his name into the title of his latest film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Warner Brothers claimed copyright ownership over the title of The Butler. The MPAA mediates title discrepancies in cases where one movie could clearly be confused for another. However, Warner Brothers’ claims a 1915 silent short film in their vault by the same name. Is anyone in the year 2013 really going to pay a ticket for the Butler and reasonably expect a silent short that’s almost 100 years old? Rather than pay a financial settlement, The Weinstein Company decided to alter the original title, adding the director’s name. This isn’t The Butler. Now it’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler. So before I get into the thick of my review, I’d like to absolve Daniels of Tyler Perry-levels of hubris. You’ll excuse me for just referring to it as The Butler throughout the duration of this review, not to be confused with a 1915 short film.

From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, one man served them all and his name is Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker). He was a White House butler for over 30 years, even attending a state dinner at the behest of Nancy Reagan. Cecil grew up on a Georgia cotton plantation and moved up the ranks in high-class service. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), wishes her husband would worry more about his own home than the White House. Cecil’s two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley), have very different views of their father. Louis feels like dear old dad is too close to the men of power, and Louis is going to do what he can on the frontlines of change.

105174_galI’m sure everyone had good intentions with this movie, but I walked away with the overwhelming impression that The Butler was too heavy-handed, too corny, and too mishandled with its plot construction for it to be the effective drama all desired. I also know that my opinion is of a minority, but that has never bothered me as a critic. Let’s start with the biggest handicap the film has going, and that’s the fact that its central character, the titular butler, is too opaque for a biopic. Early on, Cecil rises through the ranks of black service workers because of his skill, and that skill is none other than “having a room feel empty with [him] inside it.” I’m not downplaying the man’s dedication, or the culture he grew up in that preferred their black workers to be silent, but here is a movie where the man’s claim to fame is that he served eight presidents but he was in the background for all that history. I wasn’t expecting Cecil to lean over and go, “Mr. President, that Voting Rights Act might be a good idea, and I’ll help ya with it.” He is just sort of there. I was expecting him to have some larger significance, especially in his own life, but here’s the kicker: by the end of the movie, you’re left with the impression that all of his years of service were for naught. Cecil comes to the realization that his son, who he has sparred with for decades, was right and he was wrong. Is this the intended point? My colleague Ben Bailey will argue this is Daniels’ subversive intent, to undermine the tenets of typical biopics, to fashion an anti-biopic. I am not as convinced.

The problem is that Cecil is a passive character, which makes him the least interesting character in his own story. He served eight presidents, yes, but what else can you say about him as presented? What greater insights into life, himself, or politics does he have during those years with seven different presidential administrations? I cannot tell. I was thoroughly astounded that Cecil, as a character, was boring. I suspect this is why screenwriter Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change) chose to split Cecil’s story with his son, Louis. Here is a character on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement, getting chased by mobs, beaten, sprayed with firehouses. Here is an active character that wants to make a difference. He also happens to be mostly fictional.

While the film opens with the phrase “inspired by a true story” you should be wary. Upon further inspection, very little is as it happened. I think all true stories, when adapted to the confines of a two-hour film narrative, are going to have to be modified, and pure fidelity to the truth should not get in the way of telling a good story, within reason. I don’t have an issue with Louis being fictional, but it points to the larger problem with the biopic of such an opaque man. The real-life Cecil, Eugene Allen, had one son who went to Vietnam and married a former Black Panther. Strong splits the difference, supplying two sons with different paths. Because of his invention, this means Louis has the benefit of being present at a plethora of famous Civil Rights events, like the Woolworth counter sit-in, the Freedom Rider bus burning, and the assassination of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Seriously, he’s in the same motel room with MLK in Memphis. With the exception of the Woolworth sit-in, the Civil Rights events feel like minor pit stops, barely spending any time to develop. It ends up feeling like a facile Forrest Gump-like trip through the greatest hits of the Civil Rights movement.

This narrative expediency also translates to the supporting characters in The Butler. Beyond Cecil, Louis, and Gloria, there aren’t any characters that last more than one or two scenes. Cecil’s White House co-workers, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. (Red Tails) and Lenny Kravitz (The Hunger Games), provide amiable comic relief but little else to the narrative. Terrence Howard (Dead Man Down) has an affair with Gloria and then is never seen again. That affair, by the way, is also never referenced again nor does it have any further ramifications with the relationship between Cecil and Gloria. So then what was the point? There is a litany of famous faces playing real people, but they’re all in and out before you know it. The actors portraying the presidents are more an entertaining diversion than anything of real substance. Alan Rickman (Harry Potter) as Reagan gets the closest in the physical resemblance game, though I strongly doubt Reagan, as presented in the film, sat down and openly admitted he was wrong to his African-American service workers. John Cusack (The Raven) as Nixon is a hoot. The movie speeds right through the Ford and Carter administrations, so I’ll play my own game of casting (Ford: Dan Akroyd; Carter: Billy Bob Thornton). The presidents, like the clear majority of supporting players, don’t stick around long enough to leave an impression. It’s as if our prior knowledge of these famous faces is meant to serve as characterization. Beyond the immediate Gaines family, you don’t feel like you’re getting to know anyone.

105665_galThen you bring in Daniels as director and the man has not shown much of a penchant for, let’s call, subtlety. This is, after all, the same man who directed Nicole Kidman in the ways of urinating upon Zac Efron. A coherent tone has often been elusive in Daniels’ films, which veer into wild, loud, sometimes clashing melodrama. The most clashing thing in The Butler are the matching 1970s and 80s fashion that will burn your eyes. He tones down his wilder sensibilities but The Butler is an especially earnest movie; but overly earnest without earned drama usually begets a corny movie, and that’s what much of The Butler unfortunately feels like. The significance of the Civil Rights movement and the bravery of the ordinary men and women, and children, fighting for equality cannot be overstated. These were serious heroes combating serious hate. I expect a serious movie, yes, but one that isn’t so transparent about its Staid Seriousness. The Butler is very respectful to history (fictional additions aside) but too often relies on the historical context to do the heavy lifting. It also hurts when the film is so predictable. At one point, I thought to myself, “I bet Cecil’s other son gets shipped to Vietnam and probably dies.” Mere seconds after this thought, young Charlie Gaines says he’s going to Vietnam. I’ll leave it to you to discover his eventual fate.

Daniels’ true power as a director is his skill with actors. The man nurtured Mo’Nique into an Academy Award-winning actress. From top to bottom, no actor in this film delivers a bad performance, which is a real accomplishment considering its stable of speaking roles. Whitaker (Repo Men) is the anchor of the movie and he puts his all into a character that gives him little to work with. He brings a quiet strength and dignity to Cecil, able to draw you in even as he’s presented so passively and ultimately perhaps in the wrong. Winfrey hasn’t been acting onscreen since 1998’s Beloved. Gloria is an underwritten part but she does the most with it and I’d like to see more of Oprah the actress more often. Another highlight is Oyelowo (Jack Reacher) as the defiant son fighting for what he believes is right. I want to also single out former America’s Next Top Model contestant Yaya Alafia as Louis’ girlfriend and eventual Black Power participant, Carol. She’s got real potential as an actress and if she gets the right role she could breakout and surprise people.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (just one last time for feeling) is an earnest, emotional, but ultimately unsatisfying picture and it’s mostly because of its title figure. The figure of Cecil Gaines is not the kind of man that the entire perspective of the Civil Rights movement can be hung onto as an allegory. He’s treated as background of his own story. If the filmmakers wanted to highlight the life of a man who grew up on a cotton plantation, worked in the White House, and who lived long enough to see an African-American be president, well then tell me that story. But they don’t. I think Daniels and Strong knew the limitations of their central figure, which is why the son’s role was invented to provide a more active perspective outside the hallowed walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In the end, I really don’t know what the message is, because the one I’m left with is that Cecil Gaines realizes late in life how wrong he was, not just with his son, but his faith in the office of the presidency. I doubt the majority of filmgoers are going to walk away with this message. While well acted and with a sharp eye for period details, The Butler is earnest without having earned your emotions.

Nate’s Grade: C

White House Down (2013)

white-house-down-poster2Director Roland Emmerich, the maestro of the dumb fun blockbuster, is never going to get the credit he deserves but the man is something of a mad genius when it comes to putting together spectacle-rich, low-calorie but still satisfying summer entertainment. Take White House Down, the second of 2013’s Die-Hard-in-the-White-House movies. It’s really more of a buddy film contained to that famous structure. It’s not a smart blockbuster by any means but it makes up for any and all flaws with its sheer overpowering sense of fun. Stuff gets blown up real good, the action is brisk, and there are satisfying payoffs for story elements that felt like they were, at first glance, merely thrown together. You may walk away surprised at how much you’re enjoying the comedic interplay between Secret Service agent Channing Tatum and president Jamie Foxx. Plus it’s fun to see the president in on the action instead of merely as a hostage, like the earlier Olympus Has Fallen. In direct comparison, I’d have to say White House Down is the better of the two movies, both in payoff and action. It’s nice to have a movie that’s just fun to watch, that goes about its blockbuster business with precision, supplying a few decent twists, and giving us heroes worth rooting for and action sequences that are well developed and that matter no matter how ridiculous. Emmerich movies are blissfully free of self-serious malarkey, though his weakest hit, 2004’s Day After Tomorrow, got a bit preachy. His movies know what they are and know the demands of an audience. What I needed this summer was a movie designed to make me cheer the impossible. White House Down is a romp.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Lincoln (2012)

Steven Spielberg’s long in the works biopic of Abraham Lincoln could have easily been retitled, The Thirteenth Amendment: The Movie, such is the narrow band of focus. Lincoln is an engrossing, handsomely mounted study in the political machinations that went into passing the 13th amendment to outlaw slavery. Unless you’re a fan of history of politics, I can’t imagine that this movie is going to prove that engaging for you. This is a big movie about Big Moments with lots of people with beards giving speeches. Daniel Day-Lewis does a tremendous job as our titular sixteenth president, giving the man more foibles and traces of humanity than I can remember from any screen portrayal. Liam Neeson (The Grey) had long been attached to be Spielberg’s Lincoln, but I cannot fathom any other actor in the role after seeing Day-Lewis’s amazing work. I think he’s a shoo-in for his third Oscar. It’s intriguing to witness what a political animal Lincoln was, able to play off different sides to get his way. In the end, you may even feel a stir of patriotic pride, inspired by the good that government can grant with the right leaders for the right causes. The supporting cast all provide great performances, from Sally Field as the volatile Mrs. Lincoln, to James Spader as a conniving lobbyist, to Tommy Lee Jones as a stubborn curmudgeon… so basically Tommy Lee Jones. Just about every speaking part is a recognizable character actor. Who’s going to turn down the prospect of a Spielberg Lincoln movie? The tighter window of focus allows the movie greater depth as an important political juncture in our nation’s history, but Lincoln could have also been the 19th century equivalent of that Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m Just a Bill.” This is an easy movie to admire but I think a more difficult film to love, to fully embrace.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

Did you know that our sixteenth president had a rather unorthodox hobby, and it was really the purpose that drove him into politics and later the White House? That’s what the gonzo best-selling book Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter purports. When he was talking about a house divided not being able to stand, he was secretly talking about vampires, you see. The film version, under the tutelage of producer Tim Burton, looks like it’d be an axe-swinging good time. I realize the absurdity of wishing the filmmakers had hewn closer to the source material, a radical reinterpretation of American history, but there it is. I cannot tell a lie.

Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) is a man determined to rid this new country of the scourge of vampires. His mother was murdered by a vampire landlord, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), when Lincoln was only a little boy. As an adult, Lincoln tries to avenge his mother’s death but Barts is too strong. Henry (Dominic Cooper) saves Lincoln and teaches him all about vampires and, more importantly, how to hunt and kill them. They strike up a partnership: Henry will provide names of vampire targets and Lincoln will dispatch them with extreme prejudice. Lincoln tries to live a solitary life but keeps building attachments; to his co-worker Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), to his childhood friend Will (Anthony Mackie), who needs Lincoln’s help to forge some slave papers, and the enchanting Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Abe realizes the limitations of killing vampires one by one. The vampires are exploiting Southern slavery as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Lincoln realizes the only way to foil the vampires is to eliminate slavery, and to do so he must be in a high government position, and so Lincoln retires his axe to turn to abolitionist politics.

It feels that rather than embrace the courage of its convictions, the movie is trying to please as many mass markets as possible. So many characters and storylines are inserted wholesale without any connection to the book. The film is almost unrecognizable from the book. Now, I’ll quit my bemoaning for the time being because a movie has to exist on its own merits, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is just a mess. As far as new characters included only to appeal to broad audiences, there’s the Black Best Friend, long a staple in movies meant to say, “Hey, our lead character is hip and has no problems with race,” but really it’s always been a depressing act of pander and I always feel sympathy for the thousands of black actors who have to compete over the limited best friend parts. Giving Lincoln a black best friend seems to remind the audience that Lincoln was against slavery, you know, in case anyone didn’t know anything about the man nicknamed the Great Emancipator. Then there’s the ascension of Mary Todd Lincoln into a feisty, strong-willed, formidable ally rather than the insular, clinically depressed woman she was in real life and in the book. Mary even gets some grand hero moments taking out a vampire in slow-mo coolness. The transformation of Mary feels just as big a pander as the character of Will. Then there’s the idea that Lincoln and his small inner circle of pals are placed in the center of action, like they alone and their heroic escapades single-handedly turn the tide of war. It’s handled so ham-handedly that it all plays out like they’re the Scooby Doo gang solving the Case of the Vampire Insurrection.

Lincoln’s history is given such shrift attention, just enough to fill out the standard tortured hero’s backstory for the aims of the story. We see Lincoln as a child but just enough to establish his tragedy and hunger for revenge. Then we cut to him as an adult and going to kill Barts. That’s quite a big leap in time with little careful setup. The time before Lincoln’s presidency is just enough to supply him with a stock character posse and a plucky love interest, and then it’s right to the Civil War. So much time in between the main events just gets squeezed out, and so Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter feels like it’s always one scene away from a clumsy montage.

The vampire threat, as presented, also feels too insurmountable. Not only can these vampires walk in the daylight, they’re super strong, super fast, and can make themselves invisible, a neat new trick. When they ally with the South they seem nigh unbeatable. The movie makes the mistake of making the adversary seem too powerful, so the eventual thwarting of the vampire Confederacy feels too easy and far-fetched given the magnitude of the threat. Adam (Rufus Sewell) is hinted at being like the first vampire, but then this idea is never picked up again. Why even hint at something significant if you have no intention of pursuing it? There’s another new wrinkle where vampires are incapable of killing their own kind. If this is the case then why aren’t the vampires turning every single person they can find into vampires? It shores up their side and guarantees less potential people that could kill them. I’m curious how certain swaths of southerners are going to react to seeing their beloved Confederacy teeming with devilish creatures. Then again, I think the romanticism of the Confederacy is hogwash. When insurrections win we call them revolutions of independence, and when they lose we call them treason. Guess what? The South lost.

As much as I enjoyed his book, I have to lay the blame at the hands of Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted his book into the screenplay (he’s 0-2 this summer after his disastrous screenplay for the other vampire movie this summer, Burton’s Dark Shadows). Granted, I’m sure he got intensive notes on how to alter his story for the big screen; the whole projects reeks like it had too many cooks in the kitchen. The interconnection from the book, finding clever ways to marry history and alternative history together, have been ground down to stream line Lincoln into an American super hero. Not only is he handy with an axe, this Honest Abe can leap from racing horse back to racing horse back, and even get clobbered by a horse and keep on going. The coda at the end feels like a missed opportunity to carry on the Lincoln tradition into our modern age. With the clever reworking replaced by blockbuster superficiality, the film merely takes history and has it perform the outrageous rather than finding smart ways to connect all the outrageousness to the established facts.

What the movie has to the credit of director Timur Bekmambetov is a strong visual pulse. Bekmambetov directed 2008’s testosterone-soaked Wanted, so you know you’re going to get some crazy and eye-catching images on display. The action sequences do pack a punch and I’ll admit that seeing an axe utilized as an inventive martial arts weapon is considerably cool. There are two standout set pieces. The first is a fistfight between Abe and Barts in the middle of stampeding horses. You feel right in the thick of the action, horses stampeding all around, the sun setting to offer an eerie yet beautiful glow to the ordeal. It’s one of the more reality-stretching moments, as I noted above, but man if it isn’t thrilling and lovely to watch. The other standout sequence is a climax aboard a speeding locomotive itself atop a large wooden bridge engulfed in flames. Abe and Will stand back to back, swapping the axe to kill vampires, and then hey have to outrun the collapsing train. In these moments, the movie is joltingly alive, bursting with excitement and that rare yet glorious feeling of watching something beautifully different. I just wish this sensation wasn’t so fleeting in the movie.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a violent historical reworking that isn’t good enough to be properly entertaining and it isn’t bad enough to be considered camp. The film is mostly disappointing because it should feel far more engaging given its whacked-out premise the very cheeky promise of its title, and strong source material, a pulpy, ripsnorter of a read. The movie has some stellar standout moments but I think what ultimately hinders the entertainment value is how dumb everything comes across. This is not dumb in the winking, self-aware, satiric sense, but dumb in more of the blockheaded, Michael Bay, formulaic blockbuster sense. I wouldn’t even classify this movie as an enjoyably dumb, a silly summer slice of escapism like Battleship, which is looking better every week after new, disappointing summer releases (and it’s not even July yet!). The spirit of this movie is missing, the cleverness of the conceit drained, and the fun is bottled up. What this movie reminds me of is the stupid 2003 film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which took classic literary characters and threw them into a genre movie. Both movies figure the exercise alone, seeing classic literary or historical figures in absurd contexts, was enough to justify entertainment. I say that you have to work harder.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Frost/Nixon (2008)

The adaptation of the hit stage play, with its original leads, is an intellectually stimulating experience and a fluid adaptation from stage to screen, thanks to director Ron Howard. The acting is top-notch; Frank Langella may not readily resemble President Richard Nixon but he inhabits the man completely. In a surprising twist, Frost/Nixon is not a heavy-handed story that merely beats up on an antagonist that can no longer defend himself. Nixon’s faults are not excused but the man is presented in a deeply humanistic portrayal. This isn’t a mustache-twirling rogue but a man who came from abject poverty, who rose above his critics who dismissed his humble beginnings, and who has regret and shame for what transpired while he was in office. And he’s funny. Nixon is a funny man. Characters are not just political punching bags here. Peter Morgan’s screenplay, based upon his stage play, brings tremendous excitement to the art of debate, framing it like a boxing match. The sparring side notes present some of the more fascinating details between the series of four interviews between Nixon and British personality David Frost (Michael Sheen). But here’s the thing. Frost/Nixon is an entertaining movie but once it’s over it completely vanishes from your brain. It leaves little impact. The movie tries to make Frost’s coup a bigger deal than it was. The film is constantly trying to convince you of its importance. It’s a swell time for two hours but after that, what? Obviously the grilling of the president for getting away with crimes in office is supposed to be a statement on the outgoing President Bush, but what? Should we hope that an unassuming figure much like Frost will be able to get Bush to open up his soul? Get Regis Philbin on the phone.

Nate’s Grade: A-

W. (2008)

Director Oliver Stone’s first draft at history is never boring but it’s rarely insightful. The film portrays George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) as a stubborn and simple man trying to live outside his abilities and the long shadow of his successful and emotionally distant father. George W. was not the favored son, as he is routinely reminded, and Ma and Pa Bush express their frustration. And yet the son who did not have his family’s support and acumen accomplished what no one else in the family had. He won reelection. He toppled Saddam Hussein. And then it all came crashing down. Ultimately, who was this movie made for? The detractors of Bush will view the film being too light, providing a psychological context that humanizes the man amongst his mistakes. You may even feel some sympathy as George W. repeatedly tries to earn his father’s approval. The movie is not a partisan or mean-spirited skewering. The fans of Bush will consider the film to be a cheap shot that restrings famous blunders and transplants Bush malapropisms into new settings. People may take offense at the idea of the current Iraq War being a result of unresolved daddy issues. Seriously, for a two-hour movie spanning the life and career of the most reviled modern day president, did Stone need to include the moment where Bush almost choked to death on a pretzel? Over the 2000 election debacle? Over the Air National Guard? Over 9/11?

W. lacks a strong point of view and the film’s timeline closes too soon, only going so far as January 2004, not even the halfway point for a two-term president who has only sunk lower in national approval from that moment. A miniseries would be a better medium to explore the failures and calamities and personalities of the Bush Administration. Brolin is terrific in the title role and he never dips into parody. The rest of the actors are hit-or-miss and the movie becomes somewhat of a game of identifying famous historical figures in their one-scene appearances. My biggest surprise was how much I felt emotionally connected to the first President Bush, played by James Cromwell in a performance that doesn’t even attempt to imitate the real-life figure. Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (Wall Street) certainly don’t hide the characters they connect with (Colin Powell, often the voice of reason, is given a stirring speech calling for caution). Certain creative license is taken to provide dream sequences that can point toward the inner turmoil of Bush, like when his father admonishes him for destroying 200 years of the family’s name over the Iraq War. Overall, W. is an empathetic and sometimes dithering portrayal of the 43rd United States’ president that could have succeeded if it had more to say.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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