Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Dick Cheney’s skewed political life realized in Adam McKay’s biting ‘Vice’

By Steve Crum
If not ironic, it is curious that Vice opens Christmas Day. It is anything but a family movie, or even lighthearted escapism. However, it IS a comedy of a very dark kind. The laughs are inward, and often make one cringe. That a fact-based movie about a power hungry politician from 2001-09 could be released in the midst of the currently controversial presidential term positively speaks to the tenets of our Constitution. Such is Adam McKay’s dramedy, Vice. McKay wrote, produced and directed it.
The movie’s focus is on Richard Bruce Cheney, whom the world knows as Dick Cheney, the 46th Vice President of the United States, under President George W. Bush. The film’s title references Cheney’s vice presidency as well as Merriam-Webster’s definition of vice: “moral depravity or corruption; wickedness.”
McKay’s credentials include Will Ferrell comedies (including both Anchorman films), The Big Short, and serving as head writer on Saturday Night Live. This time, it is not Ferrell masquerading as George W. Bush, but Sam Rockwell…and he nails it. Portraying VP Cheney is Oscar winner Christian Bale. So dedicated to acting his part, he gained 40 pounds. Thanks to studying Cheney’s speech patterns and mannerisms, Bale’s transformation is incredibly uncanny and stunning. This is far from an Alec Baldwin burlesque of Donald Trump—funny as that is.
Just as immersed in her role as Cheney’s wife, Lynne, is Amy Adams. She is terrific, and her character is central to the Dick Cheney story. 
After the Nebraska born Dick Cheney moves with his parents to Casper, Wyoming, it is apparent he is more interested in socializing than his studies. By the time he struggles to graduate from high school, his time is spent hanging out at local taverns and engaging in bar fights. One of his two arrests for DWI is depicted not long into the film. A couple of years later, he marries his childhood sweetheart, Lynne. 
Lynne has aspirations for power through politics, and applies them to her misguided husband. Realizing that men have a better chance to succeed in politics than women (at least then it was true), Lynne will vicariously guide her husband to greatness. She is essentially the puppeteer. And so it goes, as Dick Cheney rapidly climbs political rungs that reach the Oval Office of George W. Bush. By now, Dick himself believes his savvy and superiority, taking every opportunity to sidestep Bush in secret. 
According to Vice, it is an easy ruse. He uses Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) to circumvent Bush’s power whenever and however he can for his own purposes. Cheney’s grab for presidential power during the 9-11 attacks and the aftermath shock Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) and Condoleezza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton), but not the dense Bush. Back home, Lynne remains her spouse’s confidant-adviser. 
Was Dick Cheney really a ghost president to George W. Bush? Did Cheney really move our country to an Iraq War in search of non-existent chemical weapons? Vice answers yes to both questions. 
The film’s visuals and details are so honest, clarifying and precise that at times it seems we are viewing a Frederic Wiseman documentary. The Cheney years are history, and not that long ago. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: B+

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

‘Mary Poppins Returns’ shines as sequel to Disney’s 1964 classic

By Steve Crum
Undoubtedly THE family movie of 2018, Mary Poppins Returns is a joyous, exuberant musical that is banking on a legion of fans of 1964’s Mary Poppins. This is not to say that those young or old, who have never seen the first Poppins, will be lost with this one. However, it would help immensely if they have.
There are grandparents—like yours truly—who did see and greatly enjoy Disney’s first take over 50 years ago. Since then, there have been reissues at theaters, followed by releases on VHS and then DVD formats. Also factor in the numerous times Mary Poppins has been shown as a network TV special. By now, most children have seen it, right? It remains in the same league of beloved family movies as The Wizard of Oz. Come we now to the new Poppins film.
Touted as a sequel, Mary Poppins Returns is more aptly both a sequel and a re-imagined remake of the 1964 Disney classic. Frankly, there are more similarities than differences. Director/Producer/Co-Story Writer Rob Marshall has fashioned Returns within the same template, including at least three of the same characters. The first film’s house and neighborhood have barely aged, except for the once very young Jane and Michael Banks. They are now adults. Michael (Ben Whishaw) is recently widowed, and has three young kiddos. Sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) has returned to the family home to help Michael and the children deal with their loss.
The elder Mr. and Mrs. Banks of the first movie have evidently died some time ago. 
The very bank for which the late Mr. Banks worked, the Fidelity Fiduciary, is now run by the villain of Mary Poppins Returns, William Wilkins (Colin Firth in conniving mode). He has schemed to foreclose on the Banks’ home immediately. 
Enter Mary Poppins, descending from the sky via open umbrella—just as she did in the ’64 movie. But this time she is impressively portrayed by Emily Blunt. Blunt’s singing voice, and she does sing several numbers, is not in Julie Andrews’ league, but it is more than acceptable. Mary then enters the Banks household as a nanny and fixer, intent on winning over the Banks family with words and songs of hope and happiness. She is soon assisted by Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who apprenticed with Bert from the original film. (Bert is nowhere to be seen.) 
As with Mary and Bert in the first flick, Mary and Jack undergo adventures in ultra-colorful live action and animated lands, including an inventive sequence that begins through a bubble bath drain. This is cued by one of the film’s best songs, Can You Imagine That? Other singable songs are The Place Where Lost Things Go and Trip a Little Light Fantastic. The score also includes snatches of music and songs written by the Sherman Brothers for Mary Poppins.
There are many pluses gained in this new version, including Meryl Streep’s eccentric Topsy, Mary’s orange-haired cousin who frequently turns everything around her upside-down. There is Angela Lansbury’s Balloon Lady, featured in a grand finale. And there is Dick Van Dyke as Mr. Dawes Jr., the bank chairman. (Van Dyke played Dawes Sr. in the original.) The 93 year-old not only sings, but dances…on a desktop. 
In addition, Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda are practically and perfectly cast.  
David Magee’s screenplay would no doubt be as unacceptable to Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers as she was regarding Don DaGradi and Bill Walsh’s in 1964. She just did not like the addition of singing, dancing, and animation.  
Robert and Richard Sherman’s very singable score for the ’64 version is unmatched by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s 2018 take. Did I leave the theater humming a Mary Poppins Returns song? No. (I did so in 1964.) 
Then again, Mary Poppins Returns is brimming with what we need more than ever today: love, hope, and family unity. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: B+