I’m Thinking of Writing Things (‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ Review)

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things (CREDIT: Mary Cybulski/Netflix)

Starring: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, David Thewlis

Director: Charlie Kaufman

Running Time: 134 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: September 4, 2020

I’m Thinking of Ending Things features a couple of things that I REALLY love in a pair of crucial scenes: a furry doggie and a trip to the ice cream shop! But there appear to be sinister elements lurking beneath the surfaces, as Jimmy the fluffy border collie seems to be stuck in a time loop of shaking himself dry, and Jake (Jesse Plemons) and the young woman (Jessie Buckley) buy their frozen treats in the middle of a snowstorm. Ice cream might taste great year-round, but if you’re going to eat it in the winter, you’d probably want to do it while snuggled up at home! (Also, that girl at the ice cream shop hints at … something nefarious.)

Really, the entirety of I’m Thinking of Ending Things is about events that I love but that have something terrifying bubbling (barely) beneath the surface. Meeting your s.o.’s parents for dinner?! Great, but the time-space continuum seems to be coming undone. Having a conversation in the car about whatever the hell pops into your head?! I love it, but often this scene is so dark that I can’t see anything at all. Dancing in a school hallway?! Hurray! … but is the janitor okay?

You’re thinking of ending things? I’m thinking of making them last forever!

Grade: 45 Dog Shakes out of 60 Ice Cream Cones

This Is a Movie Review: Dick Cheney is Ten Chess Moves Ahead of Everyone in Adam McKay’s Typically Ambitious ‘Vice’

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CREDIT: Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Justin Kirk, Tyler Perry, LisaGay Hamilton, Eddie Marsan

Director: Adam McKay

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for Profanity in the Halls of Power and Images of War and Torture

Release Date: December 25, 2018

If I’m understanding Vice correctly, then Adam McKay believes that Dick Cheney (here embodied by Christian Bale) is directly or indirectly responsible for everything that is wrong with the current state of American politics. That actually is not as much of a stretch as it sounds. During his eight years as vice president, Cheney wielded a degree of influence that was profoundly unprecedented for the position. The conventional wisdom is that his views on executive power and surveillance now represent the status quo for whoever is occupying the White House. Thus, McKay is not so far off the reservation to imply all that he is implying. But he may have bitten off a little more than he can chew with the expansiveness of his argument. He was similarly ambitious with The Big Short, but that earlier effort is more durable to scrutiny because there he laid the responsibility on forces that were perpetrated both actively and passively by many people. It may very well turn out to be true that Cheney’s influence is as wide-ranging as McKay claims – it’s just tricky to say so about a person who is still living.

Interestingly enough, that tenuousness is baked right into the script. If not for a few key decisions, the life of Dick Cheney, and ergo America, could have played out very differently. Without the presence of his wife Lynne (Amy Adams conjuring Lady Macbeth), he could have ended up a drunk nobody. And if not for his propensity to see life like a chess match in which he is ten moves ahead of everyone else, there might be no Patriot Act, ISIS, or extreme income inequality.

The thesis of Vice is that it was all so close to going differently. Through fourth-wall breaking and formal experimentation (like playing the end credits halfway through), the message is that all that we have been living through was not foreordained. Some may find that frightening, as it indicates that we are always on the precipice of disaster. And McKay’s propensity to cut to random footage of pop culture ephemera may come off as a lamentation that we are too distracted to do anything about it. But I actually see encouragement. You don’t have to like Cheney for him to be an inspiration. If you have a problem with the way things are in the country right now, maybe you can see an opportunity where everyone else sees the masses placated by “Wassup!” commercials. I’m not sure how well Vice works as a movie, but I choose to see it as an exhortation to make things right.

Vice is Recommended If You Like: The Big Short, Oliver Stone’s political thrillers, The Daily Show, Fourth-wall breaking

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Unitary Executive Theories

This Is a Movie Review: Christian Bale Gives It His Grimmest in the Dour, Distressing ‘Hostiles’

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CREDIT: Lorey Sebastian/Yellow Hawk, Inc.

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, Ben Foster, Bill Camp, Stephen Lang

Director: Scott Cooper

Running Time: 127 Minutes

Rating: R for Western Hostility

Release Date: December 22, 2017 (Limited)

Christian Bale excels at playing men who are forced into carrying the weight of a profoundly demanding mission, whether by their own volition or due to leverage someone else holds over them. The Dark Knight’s “the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now” is basically that status as personal credo. In the 1892-set Western Hostiles (Bale’s second collab with his Out of the Furnace director Scott Cooper), he plays a much more reluctant protagonist, an Army captain forced to deliver a Cheyenne chief and his family back to tribal lands, under threat of losing his pension if he refuses. He looks like he hasn’t bathed in years; that stink and his impressive mustache tangibly represent the brunt he is under.

Ergo, Captain Bale (Captain Joseph Blocker is his character name) is filled with a lot of hostility, and he is surrounded by a lot of low-grade or full-blown hostility, whether it be from his fellow soldiers, the suicidal widow (Rosamund Pike) whose family was recently slaughtered, his Cheyenne transports, or the natives that ambush them. We might have our winner for Most Accurate Title of the Year right here.

While nobody in this film is particularly heroic, I do worry that its portrayal of Native Americans hearkens back to a more racist tradition of Westerns. The opening scene presents a group of Comanches at their most savage. For no clear reason, they burn down a family’s home, skinning the father’s scalp and mercilessly killing him and his two young daughters. I am sure that some natives were actually this brutal in late-19th century frontier America, and I do not mean to say that I think that Hostiles is implying that all of them (or all of this particular tribe) were this awful. But the fact that this worst version is all we see of them and that this portrayal is presented so bluntly is concerning.

At least we can appreciate at the aesthetic pleasures (or anti-pleasures, really) with fewer moral qualms. If you ever wanted to see Ben Foster tied up in the cold, muddy rain at night, Hostiles is the film for you. Cooper’s designs for how icky and uninviting nature gets without modern amenities is thoroughly harsh. Lovingly so, even (at least the crafty attention to detail is loving). You’ll probably want to shower afterwards, in a cathartic sort of way, or if you’re a 19th century fetishist, you’ll run right out and find the closest available barren lands.

Hostiles is Recommended If You Like: John Wayne and Clint Eastwood at their most rugged

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Hostiles

This Is a Movie Review: The Defense of Journalism Mounted by ‘The Post’ is Admirable and Often Rousing, But Almost Quaint

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CREDIT: Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, David Cross, Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons, Carrie Coon, Zach Woods

Director: Steven Spielberg

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Deadline-Related Light Profanity

Release Date: December 22, 2017 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide January 12, 2018

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees some fundamental freedoms, but certain limits on those freedoms are understood. Hate speech is not protected by free speech, for example, and human sacrifice is not protected by freedom of religion. But there is not quite the same shorthand for limits on a free press. Publishing anything demonstrably libelous is certainly unacceptable, but when is it inappropriate to print what is in fact true and has hitherto been hidden? This question is at the heart of so many present-day media matters, so in comes Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which examines a time when this conflict was a momentous occasion and not an everyday one.

In 1971, The Washington Post finds itself in possession of the Pentagon Papers, a trove of documents detailing the United States’ involvement in Vietnam over the past few decades. Executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and his team of journalists think the public deserves to know this information. The federal government says it would be a felony to print it. There is no mistaking where The Post (both the paper and the film) comes down on this conflict. This is not new information and thus serves no imminent threat to American troops in Vietnam. The only harm it can cause is embarrassment for former presidents. The actual conflict that The Post grapples is the attempted reconciliation between ethical and business concerns.

The constant struggle of press outlets, even institutions as big as The Washington Post, is figuring out how to make money by delivering the truth. That struggle is writ large when making a public offering, which is what we’ve got here. Do you make a stronger case to your investors by laying low or by making a ruckus in the course of standing up for your principals? As publisher Katharine Graham, Meryl Streep is all contorted faces and knotted anxiety as she takes the lead to make the decision of printing the Papers or not. The drama is wrung in screwball fashion, with Bradlee appealing to her over the phone at the last a minute, as a gaggle of other interested parties hop on the line.

For as grand as The Post’s ambitions are, it is strange to consider that most of it takes place over the course of just one day. It all then feels almost inconsequential, but of course, certain individual moments can change the course of everything. When that is the case, there has probably been months, or even years, of work behind the scenes setting up those moments, as conveyed by an early scene of Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) gathering and absconding with the Papers. Also delivering the dynamic agita is Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, an old buddy of Ellsberg’s who tracks down the delivery. Odenkirk’s comedic background is an asset – he moves about with a paranoid shuffle that is somewhere between absolutely necessary and hilariously unnecessary. Also rousing is a typesetting montage following the decision to publish the Papers. This mechanical peek at how things are done is a valuable reminder of underlying structure in much the same way that Michael Mann’s Blackhat spent so much visual space on the wires that undergird the Internet.

Ultimately, while The Post’s advocacy for journalism is timeless, its story feels small-scale, a prelude to the much bigger fallout of Watergate and all the modern-day scandals that use -gate in their nomenclature. The Richard Nixon of The Post is only ever seen from behind and through a window. His fight against the press was fought in the shadows, but today his same tactics are being employed right out in the open. The Post’s lessons are ones I hope everyone takes to heart, but I wonder (despair?) how useful they are when the sorts of secrets exposed by the Pentagon Papers are now nonchalantly tweeted every day.

The Post is Recommended If You Like: All the President’s Men, Spotlight, a Free Press

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Sealed Documents

This Is a Movie Review: The Tom Cruise-Starring Biopic ‘American Made’ is a Rollicking Indictment of Governmental Abuse of Power

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright Olsen, Domhnall Gleeson, Caleb Landry Jones, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke

Director: Doug Liman

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: R for High Stress Profanity and a Quick Sex Montage

Release Date: September 29, 2017

Did Barry Seal live the American Dream? The marks of such an achievement are all there. The former TWA pilot rose from relatively modest means, married a beautiful woman (Sarah Wright Olsen), had three beautiful kids, was enriched by his own government, used those riches to move his family into a huge plot of land, and now Tom Cruise is playing him in a biopic. But if this is indeed the American Dream, ideals are not immune to being warped by the harshness of reality. Spoiler alert for a true story: Barry dies at the end. He still manages to accrue an insane streak of good luck, and the deadliest parts of his story are filled with mythic iconography, but his example is a stark reminder that this country’s greatness is not always so straightforward as it purports to be.

As American Made portrays him, Seal is an opportunist, but the opportunities come straight to him, from sources that are pretty hard to say no to. A mysterious CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson) shows up out of the blue and offers him a deal to fly reconnaissance missions and then act as a courier to the Latin American political figures that the U.S. government covertly supports. His presence leads him into the clutches of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel, who strongarm him into smuggling their product. You might think this would be the end of the road for Seal, but the U.S. is kinda-sorta allies with the Medellíns (anything to oppose the commies!).

Seal’s smuggling does attract the ire of just about every major American law enforcement agency, but he keeps sliding free. While the bulk of his work is illegal, it is also mostly government-sanctioned, even when the CIA erases his existence from their files. Ultimately, though, his government – the same one that made him very rich – hangs him out to dry. As the affairs in Latin America ultimately lead to the Iran-Contra scandal, it becomes unavoidably clear that the highest echelons of government are populated by international geopolitical criminals. And yet it is the Barry Seal’s of the world, who nominally remain private citizens, who bear the bulk of the suffering. True, he chooses to play his part and is not exactly the most upstanding person, but he is never really free to live as he pleases. His life looks pretty fun, but it is not hard to notice the gross abuse of power underneath that slick veneer.

With American Made and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, director Doug Liman is now a specialist in subverting the aura of Tom Cruise. If you know nothing of the actor’s personal life, it is pretty much impossible not to be charmed by him. And even if you do know about the Scientology shenanigans and all the rest of it, he still might win you over a bit despite yourself. Cruise cranks the charm at full throttle to get Seal out of so many sticky situations, but it only works if the powers that be say so. American Made shows that his star still shines on but also that he (just like the myth of the American Dream) only endures because powers greater than any one individual allow it to.

American Made is Recommended If You Like: Top Gun, Re-evaluating Top Gun, Deconstructing Tom Cruise, Narcos

Grade: 4 out of 5 Kilos