⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: R for profanity, violence and brief nudity.
This biographical take on Dick Cheney is not a pretty picture. Written and directed by Adam McKay ("The Big Short"), the acting is terrific, but the story is all over the place.
The film's concept is that former Vice President Cheney set up a shadow presidency while serving under (but really over) George W. Bush, and that his tactics, including focus groups, doublespeak and cheerleading cable TV hosts, paved the way for the current administration.
Christian Bale has physically transformed himself to resemble the paunchy, seemingly emotionless Cheney. And Amy Adams is spectacular as his wife, the profane, bullying Lynne Cheney.
But the narrative careens from essentially realistic depictions of the Cheneys at home, which acknowledge that Dick is a loving father, to wayward satire. McKay hasn't found a way to edit these episodes into the fabric of the movie. Instead, the narrative is awkwardly mashed together by the almost nonstop yammering of a mysterious Everyman narrator (Jesse Plemons).
Perhaps taking its cue from the title character, this is a smug, mean-spirited movie that bombards us with vintage film clips, newsreels and other material in a way that feels so assaultive that, even if you're inclined to agree with its themes, you rebel against their presentation.
If Beale Street Could Talk
⋆⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: R for profanity and sexual content.
If "Green Book" is the feel-good movie of the year about racism, then "If Beale Street Could Talk" qualifies as its feel-bad counterpart. Dark in content, theme and presentation, this drama about a young black couple torn apart when the man is framed for a crime he didn't commit will leave viewers outraged or despondent — or, likely, both.
Writer/director Barry Jenkins' first film since his Oscar-winning "Moonlight," the story is set in 1970s Harlem where people are told they are worthless "and everything they see around them reminds of them of that." The narrative is not chronological. The film opens with 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James) and his 19-year-old pregnant fiancée, Tish (newcomer KiKi Layne), exchanging one last embrace outside the prison where he has been sent on a bogus rape charge. They are still under the illusion that his innocence will win out over the color of his skin.
An undercurrent of hate bubbles throughout. Tish's family has embraced an us-against-the-world mentality — the world, in this case, being a society controlled by and for the benefit of whites. Backed by a haunting soundtrack consisting largely of soft, woeful jazz, most of the scenes take place in dimly lit apartments and on dark streets. When Jenkins jumps to a happy scene — Tish and Fonny deciding on an apartment, for instance — the light tone and airy atmosphere are almost shocking.
The acting matches the intensity of the story. James and Layne both are terrific, and they get great support from Regina King as Tish's mother, who is determined that a racist cop not be allowed to ruin her daughter's life.
Watching this could never be described as "fun." Even "entertaining" is a stretch. But if a powerful kick to your gut's sense of social justice is what you're looking for, you can't do any better.
On the Basis of Sex
⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rated: PG-13 for language.
A decent-ish biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg with perhaps the year's least inviting title, this film likely would fare better if it did not come on the heels of the lively documentary "RBG," which covered more ground and had the real deal at its center, lifting weights and issuing dissenting opinions. While hitting many of the same highlights, this generally feels like an imitation. Which it is.
As if things aren't challenging enough for star Felicity Jones, the movie concludes with a glimpse of the real RBG, ascending the steps of the Supreme Court in the same dress we've just seen Jones in and reminding everyone what a singular person Ginsburg is. The movie is best when it sticks to things the documentary couldn't show because footage doesn't exist, including the warm and inspirational home life of Ginsburg and her beloved husband Martin (amiable Armie Hammer).
Like the documentary, this makes a big deal of the first of the landmark cases tackled by Ginsburg, Moritz v. IRS, a gender discrimination case in which Charles Moritz, the caregiver for his ailing mother, sued to get a tax credit that was being given only to women. This episode comes alive largely because of former Twin Cities actor Chris Mulkey's quietly dignified performance as Moritz. Mulkey gives the film's best performance, which may explain why Jones' scenes with him are her sharpest work.
Director Mimi Leder struggles to rein in a story that wants to sprawl out over several decades. Then again, that sprawl couldn't have been easy to deal with. RBG's life is not a movie; it's a miniseries.