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Posts Tagged ‘Adam McKay’

One of the nice things about our semi-regular trips to the cinema is the opportunity for some proper, high-quality discussion and debate afterwards. Last week, for example, Olinka and I had an interesting talk about the concept of normality and what it really means – should it carry a positive or negative connotation? And then today we emerged from the theatre, this time accompanied by our Contemporary Conflict Consultant (she did an MA in modern geo-politics, or something – we just call her Con-Con).

‘So,’ I said, ‘If you had to choose between being ruled by an idiot or a monster, which would it be?’

‘Neither.’

‘You have to choose!’

‘But they’re both bad!’ said Olinka.

‘Yes, but which is worse?’

‘They’re both worse than each other,’ said Con-Con, who may have an MA but probably wouldn’t last long in a philosophy seminar.

In the end they sort of refused to answer the question, which I thought was telling. The movie to provoke this unusually intense wrangling was Adam McKay’s Vice. Ten or fifteen years ago McKay was well-established as a director of smart, silly comedy films, but since then he has reinvented himself as one of the most ferociously political directors working in the Hollywood mainstream – almost like a non-documentarian analogue to Michael Moore – and has done so to some acclaim. Vice continues this, and is probably his most partisan piece of work to date.

Vice tells the story of the career of Dick Cheney, whom you may or may not recall was the Vice-President of the United States under George W Bush. You may very well not recall; the film suggests this may be part of Cheney’s dark genius. Cheney is played by Christian Bale at his most chameleonic – for most of the film he virtually disappears under layers of prosthetic make-up. We first meet the future Veep in the early sixties as a hard-drinking scumbag, kicked out of college for his bad behaviour. His intimidating wife Lynne (Amy Adams) decrees that Cheney shape up or she will leave him.

From this point on the film rattles through the early part of his political career – an internship in Washington, where he forges a long-lasting alliance with his mentor-cum-ally Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), then a stint as White House chief-of-staff, election as a Congressman, then Secretary of Defence under the first President Bush. A presidential run is contemplated, but Cheney decides against it. However, could a second act in his career be lurking on the horizon…?

Well, of course it is, and – the film posits – Cheney eventually becomes the real power behind the throne as Vice-President to George W Bush (Sam Rockwell), quietly gaining control of key areas such as energy, defence, and foreign policy. Following the September 11th attacks, Cheney and his cohorts see the opportunity to launch the invasion of Iraq they have already been preparing for. Various things follow which I hope you are already familiar with: Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, the destabilisation of the Middle East, the rise of ISIS, and much more. Did I mention that this is at least partly intended as a comedy film?

Doing a bio-pic of someone who is still alive is not entirely unheard of, especially when the person is in the later stages of their life and most likely not going to make any more notable contributions to posterity. What makes Vice somewhat noteworthy is that most biographical films tend to be upbeat, or at least fairly non-judgmental, certainly when their subject is still alive. This film is different. Dick Cheney is presented as, not to put too fine a point on it, a monster, an utterly ruthless sociopath fixated on the acquisition and use of power for its own sake. (Bale notoriously thanked ‘Satan’ for inspiration when he won an award for this role recently.) One key moment in his political development comes when a perplexed Cheney asks Rumsfeld what it is they actually believe in as politicians. Rumsfeld walks off practically screaming with laughter. Cheney, the film suggests, achieves this and facilitates many atrocities through the deployment of tortuous circular logic (America has declared it does use torture; therefore the use of stress positions and waterboarding cannot, by definition, be considered torture) and an Orwellian misuse of language (‘enemy combatant’ rather than ‘prisoner of war’; ‘climate change’, not ‘global warming’). He also makes full use of people’s tendency to ignore big, complex, abstract problems and fixate on whatever’s in front of them, like a reality TV show.

As with The Big Short, McKay’s last film, there is some quite challenging material here, the sort of thing that might make audiences switch off, and so McKay works intensely to keep the film surprising and blackly entertaining. Bale’s performance as Cheney is a masterclass in understated, underplayed menace, but Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell are both essentially off the leash as Rumsfeld and Bush – Rumsfeld emerges as a kind of demented rodent, while the film sticks with the notion that Bush was a clueless figurehead for an administration basically run by Cheney: Rockwell plays him as a hapless, baffled lightweight. Some big performances here, and it does make me wonder about (and, to be honest, eagerly anticipate) the inevitable movie concerning the Trump administration we’re bound to get, probably sooner rather than later. How can any movie do that particular circus justice? One can only hope The Jim Henson Company have kept their diaries free.

Elsewhere the film cheerfully toys with the standard forms of conventional cinema in a way which seemed to me to be very clearly indebted to Monty Python in places – there’s a fake ending at one point, complete with its own credits. You do occasionally get a sense of the film stretching a bit too far for its effects, though – Jesse Plemons’ narrator admits that it’s impossible to know what was going through the Cheneys’ minds as they contemplated Dick becoming the VP, so the film opts to fill the gap by inserting a cod-Shakespearean sketch with the couple considering their options a la Macbeth and his wife.

‘This probably won’t play well with the Republican base’, you may be thinking, and the film indeed seems to anticipate this, including another sketch-like moment where one character complains he’s appearing in a film with a liberal bias and then gets into a fight with someone with an old-fashioned attachment to facts (meanwhile two onlookers ignore the developing brawl as they discuss the latest cool movie trailer to drop). But this seems more like a joke than a serious attempt at redress. One of the film’s most brilliant strokes is to suggest that, despite everything else he’s responsible for, Dick Cheney did have at least one mitigating quality, one moral principle – only to reveal that, in the end, he knowingly abandoned even this. Even so, the film does allow Cheney the last word – Bale-as-Cheney addresses the camera and justifies his actions in a manner that is not only difficult to easily dismiss, but also serves as a reminder that we are all to some extent complicit in the crimes committed in our names.

The disputed election in 2000 and the invasion of Iraq a few years later already feel like something out of the history books, but Vice is also careful to establish the part that Cheney and his generation played in creating the conditions which enabled the current slow-motion disaster in American politics. Trump and Pence appear in archive footage; they actually find footage of Ronald Reagan saying ‘Make America great again’; Cheney’s role in changing the law to allow partisan news services such as Fox News to come into existence is touched upon. There is much that is still timely in this film, even if it feels more like a howl of disbelieving anger than any kind of suggestion as to how to make things better.

This is a ferocious film, very funny, and full of ideas and energy with some terrifically entertaining performances. It’s also quite frightening and more than a bit dispiriting, which makes it an odd package, to say the least. I’m not sure it’s likely to change many minds, but I think it will be an educational experience for many people, and a roller-coaster trip through recent political history. One of the outstanding movies of the year so far.

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With the possible exception of an American horror movie, I am less likely to see an American comedy than any other type of film. This is mainly because it seems to me that the funny American film is in a state of advanced homogeneity, with all of them sharing the same sort of tone and approach, not to mention the fact that they draw upon the same very familiar pool of actors. Nearly every major release seems to be produced by Judd Apatow, as well. None of this would be a problem if it were a kind of homogeneity I actually had much time for. But I don’t. So there you are.

However, if we’re looking at it in those terms, I shouldn’t really have enjoyed Adam McKay’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy back in 2004, because it is a very broad Apatow-produced comedy featuring various members of the usual crowd – Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, and so on. And yet I really liked it; enough to buy the DVD (albeit using a money-off voucher), enough to be mildly pleased at the announcement of a sequel, and – apparently – enough to actually go and see Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. (Though the fact they shot a bespoke commercial to run before the Doctor Who 50th anniversary show may also have been a point in the film’s favour.)

Anchorman2_Poster

Comedy sequels tend to be pretty odd beasts – the whole basis of a sequel is essentially ‘more of the same’, but repetition is, of course, the death of comedy. Long-running comedy franchises tend to be based around characters who can go anywhere and do anything, either as individuals or ensembles. Anchorman is, you would have thought, fairly limited by the fact that it’s about a newsreader. So how does the new film perform?

After some scene-setting shenanigans, the story proper opens with a clinically upset Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) on the skids and on the bottle, working at a sea-life park. Once a journalistic titan, Ron is in a bad way, his personal and professional lives both having fallen apart. However, hope glimmers when he is offered a spot on America’s first 24-hour news channel – is this a chance to re-forge the legend of Ron Burgundy?

Well, of course it is, provided he can reassemble his crack news team of sports reporter Champ (David Koechner), roving investigator Brian (Paul Rudd), and semi-sentient weatherman Brick (Steve Carell). What follows is essentially a relentless shotgun satire directed against any hapless target that wanders into range: fast food restaurants, cat photographs, race relations, rolling news channels, Australian media tycoons, and so on, interspersed with character bits for Ron and his team.

I was watching the first Anchorman on TV the other night and, as usual, trying to work out what made it so funny – was it the loving pastiche of 70s values and fashions? Was it the deadpan skills of the performers? Was it the fact that – despite the film not being scripted as such, but improvised by a gang of people messing about in front of a camera – it was built on a firm structural basis? And then I realised it was none of the above. Both the original Anchorman and the new one are funny because they are knowingly, defiantly, enormously silly.

Most of this film is simply ludicrous on every level – but it’s a knowing sort of ludicrousness, one that’s carefully judged and not all that far from actually being ironic. There’s a sight gag about Ron bottle-feeding a… no, better not spoil it, not to mention another scene where an astonishingly big-name star in an uncredited cameo turns into a… no, don’t want to spoil that one either. I usually avoid movie comparisons like the plague (I have people on the payroll to do that kind of thing for me, after all), but there are scenes in Anchorman 2 which would not seem entirely out of place in a Monty Python project.

However, what is telling is that the producers have a very strong idea about what their real strengths are: Ferrell and most of the others are consistently amusing, but it’s telling that when the film feels the need to get really big laughs, it wheels on Steve Carell as Brick Tamblyn. Carell is, by a very long way, the funniest thing in an extremely funny film – one is almost tempted to wonder how long it will be before Brick gets his own spin-off movie, but I’m not sure the character would support one. One of the less successful plotlines in Anchorman 2 sees Brick embark on a torrid romance with the equally brain-dead Chani (Kristen Wiig), and the results are more weird than consistently funny: Wiig almost seems to be trying to find some emotional reality in her character, as opposed to the glazed inscrutability that makes Carell’s performance so hilarious, and it does feel as if scenes from a very off-beat art-house movie have been spliced in by accident.

What’s slightly surprising, given how riotously absurd most of the story is, is that this actually seems to be a film attempting to make serious points about the modern media: there is a lot of satire of the news networks and the fact that they are making news much more than simply broadcasting it; the populist and conservative bias of most of these channels comes in for some heavy stick as well. This is not done with an especially light touch, and this gives some parts of the film an almost preachy quality which I wasn’t sure I cared for. Then Brick came on again and made me laugh until I hyperventilated, so that was okay.

Even so, there’s a third act segment which felt to me like a genuine misjudgement – earlier in the film there are some slightly edgy gags about attitudes to race and domestic violence, but the whole point of them is that Ron and his friends share stupidly unreconstructed values. We’re laughing at them, not at jokes about punching women or all coloured people being drug dealers. Later on, though, there’s an extended series of jokes about disability which didn’t seem to have that quality of distance which made them acceptably ironic. It’s not that big a deal, and the circumstances involved are as ridiculous as the rest of the movie, but it’s still a distinct wobble.

Nevertheless, this is still a very funny comedy. It reminded me a lot of the second Austin Powers film, in that it’s largely a more confident and more polished version of the original, with the key moments and gags you remember from the first one being retooled and expanded upon this time around. That proved to be a very limited strategy when it came to producing a long-running franchise, of course, and I can imagine McKay and Ferrell thinking very carefully about whether to return to these characters yet again. For the time being, though, that’s not a problem: Anchorman 2 is as inventive and as charmingly deranged as its predecessor.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 16th 2004:

Sometimes someone seems to sneak up out of nowhere and becomes a star without anyone really noticing them doing it. I am, of course, thinking of Will Ferrell, whose career seemed to be going nowhere in particular only a couple of years ago. But on the back of some scene-stealing cameos in Old School and Starsky & Hutch, and a bona fide hit with Elf, his star is waxing and some are even hailing him as the new Jim Carrey.

This seems a rather harsh thing to say about anyone, especially when his new movie, Adam McKay’s Anchorman – The Legend of Ron Burgundy, is such good fun. This is another 70s-set romp in which Ferrell plays Ron Burgundy, head honcho newsreader on a San Diego station. With his sidekicks Brian, Champ, and Brick, Ron rules the roost, master of all the news he surveys. But this changes when a need for a more diverse line-up forces management to hire perky new reporter Veronica (Christina Applegate) to join the team. Ron finds himself instantly drawn to her poise, her insight, and – more specifically – her lovely butt. But can they find true happiness together given that her ambition is to venture where no woman has gone before and – horror – actually read the news?

Well, it sounds a bit like we’re heading into rom-com territory and while this is broadly speaking true, don’t base your decision on whether or not to see Anchorman solely on that. More than any film I’ve seen in years, this is a throwback to the old Zucker-Abrahams movies like Airplane and The Naked Gun. It doesn’t have the same reliance on sight-gags and parody, but it is exuberantly silly and a tiny bit hit and miss. The opening of the movie, setting up the story, is actually a bit flat as the script has to trouble itself with establishing characters and suchlike. But with this done it perks up considerably.

Although on the face of it a story about relationship troubles and equality in the workplace, most of the humour has absolutely nothing to do with either of these things. One strongly gets the impression Ferrell, McKay, and the cast sat down and just spent a fortnight coming up with as many gags and bits of foolishness as they could and then wrote the script to accommodate the best ones. In this respect Anchorman is a bit like an extended series of sketches, some better than others. A lot of the stuff you may have seen in the trailer hasn’t made it into the final cut (a phenomenon that long-term readers may recall never fails to push my buttons), but the film is so episodic and loosely-structured that the disappearance of whole subplots isn’t at all obvious.

But the better ones are very funny indeed and few of them fail to at least raise a smile. This is broad, broad comedy, based around talking dogs, rival newsreaders duelling in the streets, and characters possessed of a quite breathtaking level of stupidity. The performances are… well, they’re not subtle, but then this isn’t a subtle film. Ferrell’s lead performance consists of shouting a lot and failing to be urbane. He’s well supported by a cast one suspects are improvising a lot, though there are some wonderful scripted gags too: one running joke about the station manager’s delinquent son struck me as particularly droll. As with Dodgeball, the sole major female character is saddled with all the straight lines, but Applegate does her best with this.

Anchorman is a bit more zany and scattershot in its approach than Dodgeball, but those suggesting that all modern Hollywood comedies are the product of the same tiny clique who all appear in each others’ movies will find some ammunition here, as virtually every star comedian in America (well, all the funny ones, anyway) cameos in Anchorman, along with an Oscar-winning actor best known for his serious roles. A lot of this seems a bit smug, given that the cameos themselves form part of the joke in the sequence where they occur, but it’s undeniably amusing: and one swiftly-rising star in particular shows a welcome sense of his own ridiculousness, if only for allowing an out-take to be used in which he displays a total inability to kick a stuffed dog over a three-foot fence.

This is another one of those comedies with no agenda or axe to grind beyond simply getting the audience to laugh. Well, once past that slightly slow start I was hooting like a loon for most of the movie. Anchorman is an enormously likeable film, unpretentious and with a formidable gags-per-minute workrate. Definitely worth a look if a healthy mixture of wackiness and smut appeals to you.

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