This edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews has got to be the weirdest assortment of films so far. In today’s day and age, politics has become a strange beast. So, it only makes sense to group the remaining stack of physical media I have left in one big, strange, mess. In the following films below you’ll find biopics of highly influential figures in American politics, stories about how the media has reacted to those figures and evolved over time, and a litany of abstract and absurd films that range from haunting and powerful to hilarious and ethereal. Hopefully you’ll find something worth watching in these strange times, good luck out there!
Nixon (The Director’s Cut)
Written by Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, and Oliver Stone, and directed by Stone, “Nixon” is a three hour plus political epic that follows Richard Nixon’s political career and life story. At least, Oliver Stone might describe it as an “epic” the way the film treats the source material and runtime. Personally, I felt a disconnect between what I imagine the filmmaker’s intentions were for the audience versus what I experienced. Since I was born twenty-six years after he resigned, I only know Nixon as the caricature that society has referenced him as since. There’s a sense that while the film doesn’t seem to condone Nixon’s actions, it maintains a sense of empathy for it’s subject while structuring itself as a ‘tragedy’. The film opens with the Watergate scandal fully underway and it slowly circles back around to Nixon’s eventual resignation. I found Anthony Hopkins portrayal of Nixon to be distracting at first, I could only see Hopkins’ acting, not the character he was supposed to be. However, after the film’s first hour had passed Hopkins began to melt away as Nixon emerged more prominently. The film goes through the highlights of every big Nixon related event that you might remember or were vaguely aware of; his awful performance in the first televised debate with John F. Kennedy, his meeting with Mao in China, his odd late night meeting with protesters at the Lincoln Memorial, they’re all there and executed fairly well. There was a lot of effort, it feels, put into an analysis of Nixon’s childhood to be able to understand the man he would become. His mother looms large in his life before and after her death, having put all of her expectations and guilt onto Richard after his two brothers died so early in life. Nixon is shown perhaps more meekly than he may have been at times, again, my knowledge of the man and his mannerisms is limited at best, but throughout the film there’s a melancholy note to the whole affair that posits that Nixon could have grasped greatness (see poster above), if only his own flaws hadn’t gotten in the way. The film is well cast, with standouts like Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger, Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover, and James Woods as Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman- all give excellent padding to a film that’s most chiefly concerned with its performances and larger-than-life characters.
Recommendation: If you enjoy Oliver Stone’s political works, this film is fairly entertaining and competently made. However, this one- especially the Director’s Cut- is L O N G and the pacing isn’t exactly perfect. If you’re into historical dramas, especially any involving politics, then I’d recommend it, but it won’t be for everyone.
All The President’s Men
Written by William Goldman and directed by Alan J. Pakula “All The President’s Men” is a political thriller adapted by the book following Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). Admittedly, this is one of those classic films that I had previously just never gotten around to watching, but it fits perfectly after Oliver Stone’s “Nixon”, so, sometimes procrastination can yield unexpected benefits. This film is the very inverse of Stone’s “Nixon”. Stone’s film was heavily invested in Nixon and his inner circle making grandiose decisions in the spotlight of the world and trying to make sense of their process. This film, however, is about two ordinary men challenging power in the dead of night and shadows, it’s about hushed revelations and some dogged detective work. If you don’t know the story, the film is about the investigative reporting of Bernstein and Woodward who begin to tease out the hints and clues arising from the suspicious nature behind the Watergate scandal. Most of the film’s story is about ‘WoodStein’, as the duo are affectionately referred to at the Post, hunting down sources, pulling confirmations out of skittish witnesses, and those oh so infamous ‘Deep Throat’ scenes. There’s an infectious, almost manic, energy about the film, and a resilience that instills the film with a certain sense of hope that if you strive hard enough, put in the work, and keep the coffee brewing- that the juice will be worth the squeeze. My god, having faith in the system like that must have been encouraging…
Recommendation: This film is a classic, and it has most certainly earned its place in cinema’s history. Don’t wait forever to give it a watch like I did, besides, you’ve got Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman together here- what more could you ask for in a 1970’s political thriller?
Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, “Network” follows the story of Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the evening News Anchor of UBS, the imagined TV Network alongside the big three; ABC, NBC, and CBS. At the beginning of the film, Howard learns that he has just two weeks left at UBS due to poor ratings. So, as is appropriate in these sorts of situations, Howard and his longtime friend in upper management Max Schumacher (William Holden) get properly drunk and lament the state of News Broadcasting. The next night on the air, Beale ends his program by announcing that he’s going to blow his brains out the following Tuesday night on the air. This prompts the studio heads to fire Beale but Schumacher steps in to allow Beale one last broadcast so that he may go out on his own terms. However, Beale uses his opportunity to speak freely to his audience and he goes into an entire rant about life being bullshit which unexpectedly turns into a ratings hit. The studio executives decide to cynically rehire Beale and run with his “Angry Man” routine for awhile until they hit another slump in ratings after the novelty wore away. This prompts Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) to convince Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), the studio manager, to allow her to run a new program entirely with Beale’s “Angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times..” bit at the center stage. Schumacher initially objects to the studio exploiting his friend’s emotional and mental breakdown for profits, but even he cannot stop the flow of money and attention towards UBS by way of Howard Beale. Diana and Schumacher eventually have an affair that runs alongside Beale’s popularity, but eventually the old school romantic that Schumacher is at his core cannot abide by Diana’s way of life. In a fantastic teardown of her shallow character and morality Schumacher tells her, “You are television incarnate, Diana. Indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.” After some time, the inevitable divergence between an angry populist prophet preaching about the evils of the modern world and the amoral intentions of a profit seeking national television conglomerate would come to an impasse. Beale comes to discover that the studio is in talks to be bought out by an even bigger international conglomerate run by the Saudi Arabians. Which leads Beale to rail against the gigantic merger that would hurt the majority of the company’s working class employees in favor of stupendously big payouts for the corporate board members. When push came to shove between Beale and the executives, they couldn’t let that golden goose get away at the expense of one lousy angry prophet. I’d like to take a moment to argue that while this film does not immediately concern itself with politics, it does focus on the massive transition of the American Media machine during the 1970’s that transformed the old Newsman persona from Edward R. Murrow to the imminent 24-hour News Network style Pat Buchanan. It’s a far cry from the infamous News Anchors, and characters, of today like Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones- but this story is part of the path that news media took from objectivity to subjectivity. In the highly polarizing political world of today News is not, and cannot be, unrelated to current politics. You know how it is.
Recommendation: This was an excellent film! I’ve seen a handful of Sidney Lumet’s films before and I consider him to be one of the best American film directors of his time. “Network” is a sharp satire that pits people against each other for profit and popularity, it sets it’s eyes on an unyielding sensationalism over morality and truth. Not to mention the writing! This is the first film I’ve watched in a good while where the writing itself stood out as exemplary and admirable! The film won several academy awards, and Best Original Screenplay was among them! Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, and Beatrice Straight all won in their respective acting categories as well. I highly recommend this one!
Written and directed by Adam McKay, “Vice” is the political biopic of Dick Cheney, the 46th Vice President of America and one of the most dangerous men to hold power in American history. At least, that’s the angle that the film posits, and for my money, it makes a damn good case for that statement. Similarly to “Nixon”, this biopic tries to understand the man behind the podium- but as the film tells us right from the opening, Dick Cheney was, and remains, one of the most secretive men to hold political office in the nation’s history. The similarities between this film and Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” biopic end there however. There is no wistful nature or wide-eyed optimism that suggests that maybe the man was simply misunderstood. No, this film has a very clear bias against Dick Cheney, but it’s up front with you about that throughout the film. From drunken beginnings in Wyoming through his handling of affairs during, and in the wake of, 9/11 and all the way to the end of the Bush administration, “Vice” attempts to sum up the character of Dick Cheney. Cheney was an intern in the Nixon administration working under Donald Rumsfeld, who played an integral role in shaping the political mind of Cheney. The film suggests that one of the more consequential aspects of Cheney being in the Nixon administration was that one day the impressionable intern overheard Nixon and Kissinger discussing the secret bombings of Cambodia. This eureka moment gave Cheney the dawning realization of the executive branch’s true power. This would later lead Cheney to be, among other things, a huge proponent of “the unitary executive theory” which theorizes that the constitution could be interpreted such that the President possesses the power to control the entire executive branch. Fast forward twenty-five years and we have Dick Cheney being asked to join George W. Bush’s presidential ticket, after years of being out of the limelight with public family stresses and work in the energy sector, Cheney saw opportunity where others could not. If anything the film does give the sense that Cheney was no fool, he was a cold, calculating, and brutal man that would change the course of American History more than any other Vice President before, and likely after. However the film is also very concerned with the consequences of the actions of those in power. Edits of decisions made in the White House cut together with drone bombings, amid a litany of other violent outcomes, litter the film’s runtime. We even have a narrator, Kurt (Jesse Plemons), who is remote from the rest of the action taking place within the film- if Kurt would stop to explain something more in-depth, we’d cut to him raising his kid, going to war in Irag/Afghanistan, mowing the lawn etc.. while he assists in his duties as narrator. It’s not until far later in the film when Kurt returns on a jog one morning only to get hit by a car unceremoniously. After we follow Kurt’s dead body we’re quick to find that Kurt was the heart donor for Dick Cheney’s 2012 heart transplant. It was a smart move to make us comfortable with Kurt’s presence, which only makes the film’s main theory that much stronger. Dick Cheney’s actions had horrific consequences. I have to take a moment to praise the acting performances in the film, everyone was stellar in their roles, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld was immaculate, Sam Rockwell was the PERFECT George W. Bush, and Christian Bale was outstanding as Cheney. His physical and vocal transformation was haunting and exacting! Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney was also quite commendable!
Recommendation: In the vein of “Nixon” but with none of the wistful “What could have been?” suppositions, “Vice” takes a more cutthroat tone with it’s titular subject. The film is worth a watch purely for the performances alone but as a whole “Vice” was a very well crafted biopic combining its narrative strengths with a darkly comic tint. If you enjoyed McKay’s “The Big Short”, then you’ll probably find a lot to like here as well.
A Glimpse inside the Mind of Charles Swan III
Written and directed by Roman Coppola, “A glimpse inside the mind of Charles Swan III” is an abstract and self indulgent meandering waste of time. Usually, I leave my opinion out until the end of a review, but I’m fairly certain that this film is objectively… uninteresting. Charlie Sheen stars as Charles Swan III, a middle-aged graphic designer in southern California who’s used his connections and visual art talent to set up an easy and comfortable life. The film centers on Swan’s relationship woes with Ivana (Katheryn Winnick). She breaks off their relationship at the beginning of the film when she finds nude Polaroids of her casually tossed into the same drawer with various other pictures of women that Swan’s slept with over the years. Sheen’s Swan doesn’t understand her problem with this and the rest of the film is a mishmash of shitty fantasy sequences in random assortments where Swan seems stuck on his central thesis; Can you really hate someone that you love? There’s some random flashbacks and meetings with the people in his life like his sister Izzy (Patricia Arquette), his business manager Saul (Bill Murray), and his best friend and comedian Kirby (Jason Schwartzman). Swan is a hollow character who’s an obvious riff on Sheen’s real life persona post “Tiger Blood” fiasco, and for all the title’s inference that Charles Swan’s Mind MUST be something worth getting a glimpse of… well, I actually might prefer watching paint dry. Mercifully, the film is less than an hour and a half long.
Recommendation: The only reason I can possibly give for anyone to watch this movie is for Bill Murray’s scenes. He’s always great, even in shitty movies! This is easily the worst movie I have seen from studio A24, you’ve been warned…
Under The Skin
Written by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer and directed by Glazer, “Under The Skin” is a sci-fi/horror unlike any other. This is a film that I feel is best left unexplained and most enjoyed under the most basic of synopses. Set in modern day Scotland, the film opens with a mysterious motorcyclist carrying a woman up from a roadside ditch and drops off the woman in the back of our lead’s white van. Scarlett Johansson stars as our protagonist (of sorts) as she takes the woman’s clothes, Terminator style, and begins her hunt. The movie, from what I can gather, is about the nature between predator and prey. The film covers a lot of ground in that psychology, but a lot of the subject involves an eerie eroticism as Scar-Jo uses her human form to attract men and tease the life right out of them until she has a change of heart mid-film. Interestingly, a lot of the film was shot in secrecy with hidden cameras as to obtain realistic reactions and performances from random men out on the street. I suggest taking a look into how the film was made after you’ve given it a watch, it was pretty interesting. I really can’t underestimate just how little information is necessary before giving this one a watch, some things are best discovered on their own.
Recommendation: This is definitely in the running for “The Most Abstract Movie I own”. I’m not sure if I would call this film a masterpiece as I have seen others do so, but it IS one of the strangest I’ve seen, and I respect that. If you have the patience for slow films that don’t give you answers, then I recommend this one! However, that being said, this is a weird art film and it is definitely not going to be for everyone.
Written by Efthymis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos and directed by Lanthimos, “The Lobster” is a very peculiar, absurdist, black comedy set in a world where relationships are keenly monitored and tabulated. If one is to be found without a partner, they are shipped off to a large hotel that has a program in which the participants must find a romantic partner within forty-five days or they shall be transformed into an animal of their choosing. David (Colin Farrell) is brought to the hotel as his wife had recently left him for another man. In the beginning David makes a couple of friends with John (Ben Whishaw), who has a limp, and Robert (John C. Reilly) who has a lisp. Almost everyone in the film is defined by a singular trait, like having uncontrollable nosebleeds, or being shortsighted, and most of the people in the film seem to agree that for any relationship to work out in the long-run the two involved must each have at least one easily identifiable trait that they share. David has come to the hotel with a dog in tow, his brother, who had unsuccessfully gone through the program a couple of years before. According to the hotel manager (Olivia Colman) most people have no imagination and choose cats or dogs as their animal avatar of choice, and is pleased to hear that David has chosen a Lobster should he be unsuccessful in finding love. As the days go by David takes increasingly riskier moves to find a partner, eventually choosing the most heartless and brutal woman in the building (Angeliki Papoulia). You see, one can extend their deadline for transformation by capturing the escaped “loners” hiding out in the nearby forest, and the woman David was trying to woo held the record for most captured “loners”. When she believes David to be as heartless as her, having no emotions whatsoever no matter the actions taking place, she agrees to be his partner and they move into a double room at the hotel. The following morning she commits an unspeakable act that drives David to tears revealing him to be an unfit match. After this things escalate drastically and David eventually finds himself in the woods with the “loners” who also have their own set of harsh rules to follow strictly. So, this film is an odd one to say the least. Between the awkward and stilted language choices paired with most characters’ blank, expressionless performances, “The Lobster” is a very strange film, and is most certainly not for everyone (There is some unsettling violence speckled throughout the film as well), however, it’s uniqueness alone may be enough to merit a watch for some.
Recommendation: I’ve only seen one other film from Yorgos Lanthimos, and that was “Dogtooth”. I didn’t particularly enjoy that film, but this one I found this one to be far more digestible and weirdly fascinating. Based off of this one, I may have to look into Lanthimos’ other more recent films in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and “The Favourite”. I found “The Lobster” to be oddly hilarious at times, strangely charming in its performances, and almost haunting in its portrayal of a world with strictly enforced laws concerning relationships. If you’re willing to take a narrative chance, I’d recommend this one.
Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, “Colossal” is a dark comedy about Gloria (Anne Hathaway), a self-destructive alcoholic who returns to her small town home from New York City after her boyfriend ends their relationship and sends her packing. When Gloria moves back into her parents old home in upstate New York, she’s met by Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a childhood friend that grew up and inherited his father’s bar in town. In the interest of helping an old friend out Oscar offers her a job at the bar, and since the desperate, yet nonchalant, Gloria is broke and not addressing her drinking problem- she accepts. After a night of heavy drinking with Oscar and his friends, Gloria awakens the next day to news of a Kaiju (a giant monster akin to “Godzilla”) attacking Seoul, South Korea. Eventually she discovers that the giant monster isn’t from another planet or one that crawled out of the ocean- but that it’s her! Gloria tries to convince Oscar and the guys that she’s not crazy and that every day, at the same time in a children’s park, she’ll manifest the giant Kaiju in Seoul as it mimics her actions exactly. The balance that this film strikes is somewhat brilliant in my opinion, as it uses genre conventions to play out a mature exploration of toxic friendships and how to be realistic about our own problems and what it takes to alleviate them. This is a film that you’ll need to enter with a heavy suspension of disbelief to enjoy as there is no clear answer to the sci-fi issues at the core of the movie. The monster involved is more of a projection of Gloria’s issues than an international threat to be resolved, and you’re just going to have to accept the tone of the movie without getting lost in the details for it to work.
Recommendation: This film was an unexpected delight! Its charming, clever, and whimsical with it’s subject matter- but the film never shies away from Gloria’s problems, in fact, the whole story is about how people can be monstrous to each other. Addiction, loneliness, selfishness, all of these things can make a person into a monster if not dealt with accordingly. I definitely suggest seeking this one out!
Written by Ben Ripley and directed by Duncan Jones, “Source Code” is a sci-fi thriller in which the Military utilizes experimental technology to stop a terrorist from detonating a bomb on a Chicago commuter train. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is abruptly woken on that same train by Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a woman he doesn’t know, and as he staggers to find a mirror- he realizes that he’s in a body he doesn’t recognize either. Colter tries to make sense of the situation he’s in, remembering that he’s a soldier who was just in a firefight in Afghanistan and doesn’t remember how he got here, or what his mission is. After eight minutes, the train explodes and Colter is brought back to reality in a small room where he’s strapped to a machine with a nearby screen that blinks to life. On the screen is Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) who explains the situation to both Colter and the audience. The small operation utilizes highly advanced technology in secrecy that allows the Military to send soldiers’ consciousness into a matching civilian near their targeted objective who takes control of that body for a limited time. Goodwin re-establishes Colter on his mission, stressing the importance of him stopping the terrorist as the commuter train was only the first attack in a series of coordinated bomb detonations throughout downtown Chicago. If he can find and stop the terrorist in time, Colter can save thousands of lives. The rest of the film follows Colter through many attempts with a variety of different outcomes as he hunts down the terrorist.
Recommendation: Intense and an entertaining ride, “Source Code” may not be the most revelatory film you see, but it’s a sufficient thriller with a fun sci-fi twist thrown in for good measure. Perfect for a rainy afternoon, I give it a solid recommendation.
Lost in Translation
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, “Lost in Translation” is a quiet little film about a middle aged actor and a young disillusioned wife sharing their insomnia and anxieties together in Tokyo. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is in Tokyo to shoot some Whiskey commercials, but he’s also going through a mid-life crisis and unsure of his marriage’s future. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is a recent college graduate who’s traveling with her husband as he’s in Tokyo for his video production work. She’s beginning to see a gap between their relationship and isn’t sure there’s still a connection there. Both Bob and Charlotte are staying at the same hotel and after a few chance encounters in the lobby they share a drink and some conversation at the bar. The next day Charlotte invites Bob to a night out with a few new friends, they bond over language translation issues, culture differences, and generally sharing in each other’s melancholy and sensation of emptiness. There’s tension found in their fondness of each other, but it never gets too strained or upsetting. This is a slower and mellower story whose focus lies in a shared connection between two lost souls for a brief period of time. It’s charming, fairly funny at times, and a story with sadness built into it’s foundation. Not a lot happens in this one, but its melodic in it’s melancholy, and if you’re willing to come along for the ride, the film will reward you for your patience (at least, that’s how I felt by the time the credits rolled).
Recommendation: If you’re looking for a slower and more relaxed lite romance, then this one will do. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson have excellent chemistry between each other and they put a lot of good character work into this charming little movie. If you’ve ever felt lost in this world, you may find a lot to love about this one. Highly recommended.
NEXT TIME ON RAPID FIRE REVIEWS:
The next series of films I plan on writing about will fall under the category of Netflix Gems. There are a LOT of films that have debuted on the streaming giant over the last few years that I haven’t gotten to yet and I plan on tending to the neglected king of digitally distributed films. I won’t give away any of the titles I plan on focusing on, but I will tell you that I won’t be covering “Tiger King” just because it’s been trending. I’ve successfully avoided that dumpster fire for now, besides, I’ve got much better media to catch up on. See you then!