Amy Adams

Vice

16/01/19

Those people who look at the current political landscape in America and despairingly ask themselves, ‘How could this ever have come to pass?’ should pop along to a showing of Vice at their earliest opportunity, where all will be explained. This is the story of how a taciturn bit-player in American politics cleverly advanced himself into a position of unprecedented authority, becoming the power behind the throne in the administration of George W Bush, and ushering in the kind of rampant corruption that would reach its apotheosis under the tiny thumb of one Mr Trump.

When we first meet Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), he’s a hopeless case: a University dropout with a drink problem, taking menial work to make ends meet. After a confrontation with his long-suffering wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), he vows to straighten himself out and enrols in a political internship, where he finds himself assigned to Republican congressman, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell in his by-now-habitual good form). Largely by nodding his head a lot and saying very little, Cheney’s career progresses in leaps and bounds – and, when he finally has the chance to play Vice President to the very naive George W Bush (Sam Rockwell), he spots an opportunity to seize the kind of power normally reserved for the President himself.

Adam McKay’s film certainly has the potential to be yet another dull political biopic in the mould of The Front Runner, but it’s lifted way above this level by the playful nature of the storytelling. Whenever there’s any danger of events beginning to drag, McKay has a way of enervating proceedings – a Shakespearian parody here, a sly aside to the camera there – and the repeated analogy of Cheney’s skills as a fisherman are brilliantly exploited as we watch him quietly reeling the next sucker into his control. (When the sucker in question is the President of the USA, it’s particularly chilling.)

There’s also an inspired device where everyman narrator Kurt (Jessie Plemons) keeps popping up to offer his insights into what’s happening, informing us that he and Cheney are somehow ‘related,’ a mystery that’s finally explained in a moment so shocking it nearly has me leaping out of my cinema seat.

Of course, I can’t review this film without mentioning Bale’s Oscar-nominated performance in the lead role. We may be a little jaded by his insistence on physically occupying his chosen subjects, but theres no doubting the fact that he has once again achieved a stunning transformation, as shocking in its own way as what he did to his body in The Machinist. But it’s more than just the look. Bale conveys the character’s traits in every shrug, every grimace, every sly glance – and remember, he’s impersonating a character who’s so impassive there’s very little to work with. It’s a superb central performance in a very assured film.

Make sure you don’t leave the cinema too early – there’s an amusing post-credits sequence that brings matters bang up to date. I emerge feeling as though my eyes have been well and truly opened – and uncomfortably aware that the double meaning of the film’s title is all too apparent.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Arrival

11/11/16

We’re all familiar with the scenario, right? Gigantic spaceships hover over the major cities of the world, and eventually disgorge battalions of vicious alien creatures, that are hell bent on world domination. Luckily, a group of plucky resistance fighters come together to kick alien butt and free the planet from tyranny…

Thankfully, Arrival really isn’t one of those films. Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners)  chooses instead to depict an alien visitation as a positive, perhaps even fruitful occurrence. This is a sedate, almost hallucinatory film, that dares to try something different with a much mistreated genre.

Linguist, Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) finds her everyday life rudely interrupted by the unannounced arrival of twelve huge black ellipses hovering inexplicably in the air above different locations around the world. The ellipses (surely inspired by the paintings of Magritte) are silent and make no apparent attempts tocommunicate with the human race. Louise soon finds herself enlisted by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who is leading a team of North American scientists, whose job it is to try and make contact with the aliens and work out what (if anything) they are trying to tell us. Louise finds some common ground with scientist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and the two of them set about the complex task of communicating with the inhabitants of one of the giant elipses. They are quickly dubbed heptopods and are giant octopus-like creatures, which (perhaps wisely) are only glimpsed through the haze that constantly surrounds them. As she starts to make progress, Louise is increasingly affected by images of her young daughter who comes to a tragic end…

I thought Arrival was a remarkable film, quietly persuasive in its approach and totally absorbing. The googly ball that it throws at its audience in its final stretch, hit me for six – I really didn’t see it coming – and it was only as the shock of the impact spread through me, that I began to appreciate just how skilfully the storyline’s tangled web has been put together. If the film’s ultimate message could be accused of being a little bit cheesy, it’s nonetheless a welcome relief from the usual crass Hollywood approach to alien visitations.

Worth further investigation.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Nocturnal Animals

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05/11/16

Nocturnal Animals is a spiteful little film, full of bile and petty score-settling. Beautifully styled and well-acted throughout – with a stellar cast of cameos supporting the leads – this film feels like a tragic waste of talent, a plethora of artistic skill funnelled into a project with a vacuum for a heart. The worldview here is warped. The whole thing – not just the inner story of Sheffield’s novel – feels like a sterile revenge plot, the work of an embittered soul with sadistic tendencies.

Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, a successful but miserable art dealer, trapped in an unhappy marriage where her riches mean nothing; her life is a hollow shell. When she was young, in grad school, she was briefly married to a different man, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), and he was the true love of her life. But Susan was too greedy, too bourgeois, too much like her mother, to appreciate the creative sensitivity of a man like Edward: she wanted the trappings of a middle-class life, and didn’t support him in his artistic endeavours.

Nineteen years later, a manuscript arrives on her desk. It’s a proof copy of Edward’s novel, soon to be published. It’s dedicated to her, and it tells the tale of a couple just like them, brought to life for us on screen as Susan reads compulsively. The protagonist, Laura (Isla Fisher, styled to look exactly like Adams), is raped and murdered, along with her daughter. Clearly, Edward is still a long way from getting over Susan’s rejection of him.

It’s an ugly, mean-spirited story from start to finish, with a deep misogyny at its core. From the freak-show fat women of the opening credits to the gratuitous nastiness of Laura’s death, it’s lacking any sense of proportion – or of charm. Nor does it work as a study of the dark side of humanity; it’s all too petty and too personal for that. And it’s boring a lot of the time too, all ponderous shots of people in baths, and endless scenes where Adams gasps, startled by what she’s read, adjusts her glasses, then picks up the book again. The novel’s plot is pretty turgid too: after the initial excitement of the murders, it’s a rather dull procedural, where we know exactly whodunnit, and so do the police.

Seriously, this is a disappointing film. It looks fantastic and the cast is a dream-team by anyone’s standards (Adams and Gyllenhaal are joined by Michael Shannon, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough, among others) but, ultimately, this just leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

2.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Big Eyes

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30/12/14

Tim Burton’s latest offering eschews the weird and wonderful fantasy for which he is best known and concentrates instead on a ‘so weird it has to be true’ tale about bad art and flawed people. In many ways, this is Burton’s best work since Ed Wood, with which it shares some DNA – scriptwriter Scott Alexander worked on both movies.

The film opens in the late 1950’s and Burton has skilfully evoked the era in his own exaggerated, slightly surreal way. Amateur painter, Margaret (Amy Adams) has just run out on her husband, taking her young daughter Jane along with her for the ride. She finds work and in her spare time tries to sell her paintings, a series of (rather dodgy) portraits of big-eyed children. She soon encounters Walter Keane (Christophe Waltz) another wannabe artist and the two of them hit it off. Within weeks they are married. When Keane’s flair for publicity starts to kindle interest in Margaret’s art, he persuades her to let the world believe that he is actually their creator and to release them under the signature of ‘Keane.’ She reluctantly goes along with it. But neither of them have realised quite how successful Margaret’s paintings will become. As the millions begin to roll in, Margaret finds herself increasingly tortured by the deceit that they have created; and the desire to be recognised as an artist. When the marriage starts to founder, it’s clear that one way or another, the truth will have to come out.

This is an intimate, small scale story that gets to the heart of the thorny subject of intellectual property. Adams and Waltz are both superb in their roles (Waltz has some particularly funny scenes, particularly in the courtroom drama at the film’s conclusion) and Burton is always better, I think, when his creative juices are reined in and he works with somebody else’s script. (Like many critics, I feel he’s lost his way lately – Alice In Wonderland was a particular disappointment, even though it racked up huge receipts at the box office.) Big Eyes however, is an excellent film and one that stands with his best work.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney