Oscar Review – Vice: Being Evil Is Bad and Stuff

Adam McKay brings us an off-kilter movie about the life of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

SUMMARY

The movie is narrated by Kurt (Jesse Plemons), a soldier, as he discusses the life of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) as well as the impact his presence had on the Bush administration.

The film starts with an alcoholic Dick Cheney getting a DUI and being told to clean up his life by his wife, Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams). Later, Cheney works for the Nixon administration and discovers that the US secretly bombed Cambodia under the advice of Henry Kissinger (Kirk Bovill). Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) ends up being distanced from Nixon, and Cheney, his intern, starts to fall out of grace, but then Nixon resigns and Rumsfeld is the Secretary of Defense and Cheney becomes White House Chief of Staff, due to them being the only members not really connected with the fallout.

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Behold, the face of… not Richard Nixon.

After the Ford administration ends, Cheney has a heart attack and becomes a Congressman from Wyoming, mostly with his wife’s help, and starts to support a bunch of policies that blatantly help corrupt corporations gain lucrative positions and greater control over industries. Cheney serves as Secretary of Defense during the first Bush Administration, but then decides to retire from public life after finding out that his youngest daughter, Mary (Alison Pill), is a lesbian. He then becomes the head of Halliburton and becomes fabulously wealthy.

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I have avoided a single joke about his name. I want that on the record.

Cheney gets asked to be the running mate for George W. Bush (Sam “Regular or Extra Menthol” Rockwell) during the 2000 Presidential Election, which Cheney agrees to on the condition that he be allowed to have more power than a typical Vice President. Bush, not particularly caring about actually being President, agrees. As VP, Cheney brings Rumsfeld in as Secretary of Defense, David Addington (Don McManus) as legal counsel, and Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk) as Chief of Staff. Together, they make all of the actual foreign policy and defense decisions in the administration. Then, 9/11 happens.

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Again, this is mostly a comedy film.

The movie depicts Cheney as using the attacks as a way to preside over the U.S. Invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, resulting in numerous deaths and the rise of ISIS. Kurt, the narrator, served in the military during both of these invasions and witnessed killing of civilians and extrajudicial torture of prisoners.  Meanwhile, Cheney has multiple heart issues which eventually put him on his deathbed. He says a tearful goodbye to his family, but Kurt is killed while jogging and his heart saves Cheney’s life.

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He’s not in great health.

At the end of the movie, Liz Cheney (Lily Rabe) wins her father’s seat in Congress after speaking out against gay marriage, leading Mary Cheney to leave the family. The film then breaks the fourth wall and has an angry Cheney state that he has no regrets about anything he’s done. A mid-credits scene depicts a focus group where a right-wing viewer calls the film biased and violently attacks a panelist who disagrees while most of the other panelists focus on upcoming action movies.

END SUMMARY

Okay, so, this was the movie that I least imagined would get nominated for an Oscar out of all of the nominees, even Black Panther. I didn’t think super highly of A Star Is Born, but I thought it was Oscar bait. BlacKkKlansman seemed like a shoo-in, same with Roma. Bohemian Rhapsody wowed me with spectacle in the theater, so it wasn’t until later that I realized “oh, this dialogue is actually kind of lousy.” Green Book had Mahershala Ali’s performance in a film that makes Hollywood feel good. The Favourite was a period piece with great costumes and three amazing leads and artistic angles, so that’s basically a gimme. This movie, though…

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But Boots Riley gets nothing.

Adam McKay is a very talented director, ranging from Anchorman and Talladega Nights to The Big Short. He’s great at doing very stylized movies that have lots of solid comic elements, as well as occasional sudden shifts in tone or focus, like the “Afternoon Delight” scene in Anchorman or the multiple fourth-wall breaks to explain concepts in The Big Short. This movie has devices similar to those, but I think it went a little overboard on them while trying to handle a subject that it simultaneously wants to mock and also to take seriously. You have the framing device of the narrator, but also false endings, fourth wall breaks, the focus group, the double time shift from 9/11… it’s just a little too much structural mutation within a film that isn’t exactly sure what tone it wants to take. This film portrays horrible events and wants you to think about how horrible they are… but then makes a few one-liners about how ignorant Americans are. It’s not impossible to do both of these tones in one film, but I don’t think they quite pulled it off here.

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Those glasses are reserved for directors.

The film presents Dick Cheney as both a wasted dropout who lucked into a job and also a brilliant schemer who essentially uses Machiavellian tactics to gain power and wealth, but it never really connects with how he can be both. Yes, people are multifaceted, that’s the beauty of dealing with real people rather than archetypes, but even with Bale’s great performance (and it is absolutely fantastic), Cheney only seems to be a series of shifting characters, not one man that is all of these things. It clearly says that he’s a bad person, and the film takes the stance that everything he does is pretty much awful, but saying “oh, hey, this humorously over-the-top villain is bad” is a little less subtle than Bale’s performance merited.

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Again, the guy on the right is BATMAN.

That said, every performance in this is amazing. Bale’s so good you wouldn’t even believe he’s the same guy who played Batman or Patrick Bateman, while Rockwell reminds us once again that he is an almost unbelievable talent. If you haven’t watched Moon or Seven Psychopaths, you’re missing out. Amy Adams is a national freaking treasure and should be treated as such. Steve Carell, Lily Rabe, Alison Pill, Tyler Perry, all of them did amazing work. If there is one thing to be said about this, everyone was giving 110%.

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Jesse Plemons’ performance was heart-taking. I REFUSE TO APOLOGIZE FOR THIS DAD JOKE.

My biggest complaint, though, and it’s a very personal one to me, is that this movie breaks one of my cardinal rules of filmmaking: It tells the audience that you’re wrong to not like it. It presents all the people who aren’t excited about the film as either vapid idiots who don’t care enough about the world to pay attention or angry idiots who are going to be pissed about the liberalism of Hollywood. Even if you were to believe both of those things, and you very well might, just acknowledging these people to mock them doesn’t ever do anything positive. If you believe that what you’re saying, even if it will be criticized, is still worth saying, THEN F*CKING SAY IT. Don’t try to pre-defend yourself by taking shots at your detractors, just say what you believe and stand by it. 

Overall, I don’t dislike the movie, in fact I thought a lot of parts of it were good and inventive, but the structure was a little too messy for me to really think it was going to be an Oscar nominee. But maybe that’s why I only write for a few hundred people on the internet, rather than Time Magazine.

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Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: How to Hate Your Protagonist

So, per Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB and Metacritic and every other rating thing I can find, this is the lowest rated of the movies Edgar Wright directed (granted, it’s still favorably rated). There are a couple of reasons for this: It’s got a lot more jokes that require specific outside knowledge, it’s based on an indie comic that wasn’t even finished at the time, and it’s much more styled towards a particular culture. But, more than that, I think it’s that people didn’t know exactly how to feel about the main character.

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To be fair, he doesn’t seem sure either.

SYNOPSIS

This movie takes place in the mysterious land of Toronto, Canada. However, even compared to the normal Canada, this one is particularly odd in that it obeys “video game rules.” 22-year-old bassist Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is dating a high-schooler named Knives Chau (Ellen “Watch GLOW” Wong). One night, however, he sees Amazon delivery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) rollerblade through his dreams before meeting her in real life. He starts dating her, but doesn’t break up with Knives.

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Admittedly, they’re both amazing.

When Scott plays at the Battle of the Bands with his band Sex Bob-Omb (Members Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and Kim Pine (Alison Pill)), he is attacked by Ramona’s ex Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), who tells him that, in order to date Ramona, he has to defeat Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes. Scott is revealed to be an amazing fighter who ends up defeating Patel. Scott finally breaks up with Knives, but she blames Ramona and vows vengeance. Scott then tricks her second evil ex, Lucas Lee (Chris “You know who I am” Evans) into defeating himself, defeats her third ex, Todd Ingram (Brandon “You know who I am, but a little less” Routh) by tricking him into drinking cream which leads the Vegan Police (Clifton Collins, Jr. and Thomas Jane) to remove his “vegan powers,” and defeats her fourth evil ex, Roxy (or Roxie) Richter (Mae “Her?” Whitman) mildly pornographically.

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I regret nothing.

Scott and Ramona have a fight, leading her to dump him. At the next Battle of the Bands, however, Scott and Sex Bob-Omb are pitted against Ramon’s fifth and sixth exes Kyle and Ken Katayanagi (Shota and Keita Saito), who they defeat, earning Scott an extra life. It’s then revealed that the Battle was sponsored by Ramona’s seventh ex, Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), who she has now gotten back with. Scott quits the band when they sign with Gideon.

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I’d go to more concerts if this happened.

After a pep-talk (consisting of “finish him”) from his roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), Scott resolves to win Ramona back and heads to the Chaos Theater, where Gideon and the band (now with Young Neil (Johnny Simmons) are. Scott challenges Gideon but is defeated. He then uses his extra life to try again, this time being honest and mature about everything he’s done, finally defeating Gideon. He’s then confronted by Nega-Scott, who ends up being a nice guy. Ramona starts to leave, but, with prompting from Knives, Scott goes with her, walking into a doorway to somewhere new.

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The doorway to somewhere.

END SYNOPSIS

Unlike the Cornetto Trilogy or Baby Driver, this movie was actually based on an existing property, the excellent Scott Pilgrim comics by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Because of that, a lot of the plot elements were kind of locked in, although they were adapted to film by Wright and Michael Bacall (21 Jump Street). A big thing is that the comic series wasn’t over at the time the movie was being made, so they had options as to how to end it. Unfortunately, they picked an ending, then found out that they’d picked the opposite of the comics and also the one that the audience didn’t like, so they reversed themselves. In the alternate ending, Scott actually picks Knives, which is weird because that’s basically undoing a lot of the growth of the film.

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To be fair, Akira wasn’t done when they made the movie, and it’s amazing.

Now, again, this is the lowest rated film by Edgar Wright, and the main thing I think people don’t like about this movie is that Scott Pilgrim is not a great guy. In fact, that’s pretty much the point of the last volume of the comic series, which hadn’t come out yet. It’s a bit more explicit there, where it’s pointed out that much of the comic is just from Scott’s viewpoint and accepting the objective truth of what he’s done to people in the past allows him to finally realize that he’s a dick. In this movie, the realization isn’t as pronounced and is basically accomplished as part of a montage, which kind of hurts our appreciation of his growth.

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Even though it’s LITERALLY A LEVEL-UP.

It’s not really abnormal to have a protagonist who’s a bad person, tons of movies have done it, but it’s the kind of bad person that Scott is. Scott’s really just kind of a selfish asshole who doesn’t realize it. He dated Kim and treated her so badly that during the movie, she doesn’t even break her gaze most of the time. She constantly insults him and when he claims to be offended, she seems skeptical that he’s even capable of caring what she thinks… which he usually ignores and moves on.

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Kim doesn’t think well of him.

He doesn’t have a job, he mooches off of Wallace, he doesn’t have any aspirations, he dates a high-schooler despite being 22, and he cheats on her the minute he finds someone else. Unlike Shaun from Shaun of the Dead or Gary King from The World’s End, Scott doesn’t really have that many redeeming qualities. He’s cowardly, he’s not particularly loyal to his friends or his band, he’s not even that funny. You’re just not supposed to like him. At the end of the movie, we even meet “NegaScott,” who is revealed to be, if anything, slightly nicer than regular Scott, meaning Scott is actually the evil twin. But, since he’s played as being somewhat adorable, a great bassist and fighter, and is the protagonist, you find yourself naturally kind of wanting to like him, so the movie is kind of confusing your feelings. I think that turned a lot of people off.

The point of Scott’s journey isn’t actually to be a better person in the heroic cycle where he ends up completely different and changed by the journey at the end. Scott’s story is just him realizing that he needs to change and accepting that he isn’t the awesome person he thinks he is.

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Meanwhile, Ramona is portrayed pretty straightforwardly. She’s not a great person either, but she’s more honest about it and doesn’t like it. She even tries to keep out of other people’s lives to spare them her the trouble of dealing with her. However, she’s not much braver than Scott, trying to run or hide from any issue, symbolized by her ever-changing hair.

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And they’re the colors of the three goddesses of Zelda

Since I’m apparently doing characters, I will have to pause and say that I think this is among the best supporting casts ever placed in a film. Yes, most of them seem like exaggerated caricatures, but it’s a video game world inside a comic book, that’s actually nailing it. I particularly love Kieran Culkin as Wallace Wells, who manages to be both supportive and also undercut Scott’s bad habits constantly. The villains also carry sufficient weight, particularly given that most of them are only on film for a few minutes.

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I didn’t make an Igby Goes Down joke. I’m proud of me.

Now, to get into the most impressive part of the movie, the style. Since Wright was following the comic, he didn’t get as much control over the plot and characters, but more than made up for it in his choices of music, costume, and settings. The amount of effort put forth in the film is ridiculous, with almost every shot having some sort of secondary meaning.

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This after he’s beaten two of them.

The biggest one is probably the style of the villains. Each one is given elements that reflect what number they are in the league. Matthew Patel appears to only have one eye due to his hairstyle and has one chevron on his shoulder. Lucas Lee uses stunt doubles and has a 2 tattooed on his neck. Todd wears a 3 on his shirt and loses due to his third strike violation of Vegan Law. Roxie fights Scott in a club called “4” and is defeated by “foreplay.” The Katayanagi twins have an amp that goes to 11 (5+6). Gideon’s fight is filled with sevens. In contrast, Scott wears a shirt saying “zero,” drinks Coke Zero, and draws zeroes when he’s nervous.

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The transitions in the movie are impressive, with the characters constantly shifting from scene to scene, often in one fluid motion, which makes it feel more like a comic book or a video game transition. Likewise, there are a ton of quick-change cuts that almost feel like the character just changed their equipment rather than getting dressed. Even a lot of the actions have visual cues, ranging from motion lines to outright verbal sound effects.

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The music in the film is amazing, as you would expect, but the sound effects are also perfect. In a sitcom scene, they play the Seinfeld theme. In a bathroom scene, they play the Fairy Fountain theme from The Legend of Zelda series. Video game sounds are repeatedly used to punctuate actions, including the famous “KO” effect from VirtuaFighter.

Overall, I love this film. It’s got great re-watchability, it’s visually stunning, and, mostly, it’s one of the only movies that actually feels like a video game, far more than any video game movie.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.