Vice 2019 ***

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After the information dump of The Big Short, Adam McKay continues his post SNL career as a political activist with this scabrous portrait of US vice president Dick Cheney. As played by Christian Bale over several decades, Cheney is viewed here as the man behind, happy for others to take the limelight while getting what he wants behind the scenes. With make-up rendering him all but unrecognisable, Bale seems to submerge himself into the part to great effect, and Amy Adams matches him as his wife. McKay is an anything-goes director, and it’s no surprise to hear that an elaborate musical scene was cut; there’s also scenes which don’t quite land with relation to the Halliburton scandal and the final obsession with heart problems is the film’s weakest suit. But some of the comedy is proper satire and it works, notably Albert Molina as a waiter offering a menu of corruptions, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, and a interesting footnote on the creation of Fox News. As satire, Vice didn’t have much chance of reaching an audience, but it’s much more than just a glorified SNL sketch.

Big Eyes 2014 ***

bigeyes.jpgTim Burton eschews his patented brand of darkness to evoke the spirit of Blake Edwards in Big Eyes, a deceptively frothy drama based on Margaret Keane, a single mother whose ability to create memorably kitsch art led to her talents being exploited by her ruthlessly ambitious husband Walter (Christophe Waltz). Burton pitches the film nicely on Mrs Keane awareness of her husband’s inner darkness, which only occasionally involves physical threat, and is driven more by naivety and misguided trust. A funny final scene, in which egocentric Walter Keane cross-examines himself in court, reveals that Big Eyes is a gently sour comedy, but one which tells a potent and felicitous tale of female empowerment. Jason Schwartzman’s briefly-glimpsed but memorably stuck-up gallery attendant deserves a film of his own.

Arrival ****

arrival-imageIf one’s heart sinks at during the opening scenes of Arrival, perhaps it’s because director Denis Villeneuve has set the bar high in terms of avoiding sentimentality (Enemy). The set up for Louise (Amy Adams) as a bereaved mother searching to find a way forward in the wake of her daughter’s death suggests that Arrival will be a corny account of contact with extra-terrestrial life. But Arrival, while it does have some cheesy moments, is a far more thoughtful film about the potential for human-alien interaction than most. The alien language, depicted on screen in octopus-ink swirls, turns out to philosophical reflection of how they think. Their motivations remain obscure, but the effect they have on Louise and her co-worker Ian (Jeremy Renner) creates an absorbing drama which deserves a place among the best of of modern sci-fi epics.

Doubt 2009 ***

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Plays like The Big Funk made John Patrick Shanley’s name; his cinematic output, from Moonstruck to Joe Vs The Volcano, is highly idiosyncratic. Adapting his own play Doubt for the big screen, he also turned director and coaxed excellent performances from Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Phillip Seymour Hoffman for this absorbing drama. Set in 1964, Streep plays Sister Aloyisus the matriarchal school principlal who is alerted by Sister James (Adams) to the behaviour of a charismatic priest Father Flynn, played by Hoffman. Their concern is the attention that Flynn is playing to the school’s first black student; Shanley’s concern is not so much to investigate Flynn’s actions, but to consider the whole nature of guilt and doubt. The actors are more than capable of handling the long dialogue scenes, and Viola Davis contributes an explosive cameo as the boy’s mother.

American Hustle 2013 *****

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What The Sting was to the 70’s David O Russell’s American Hustle is to the 21st century; a delightful period throwback depicting the colourful lives of hustlers pulling elaborate cons on each other with style. Everyone involved seems to be having fun; Christian Bale done a toupee and expands his girth as Irving, a low-rent con artist who gets ideas above his station when he hooks up with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams); their ability to shed their personalities for the good of the con is beautifully marked down when they canoodle in a dry-cleaners as a parade of different outfits fly by. FBI agent Richie De Maso (Bradley Cooper) steps in to involve them with the Abscam scheme, in which a fake Sheik is uses to entrap local politicians including Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), and American Hustle makes a great job of keeping the audience guessing who is fooling who. The minor characters are a joy, with Louis CK, Michael Pena and Jennifer Lawrence all in explosive form; the Oscars may not be big on comedy, but for pure entertainment value, American Hustle was the best film of 2013.

Sunshine Cleaning 2008 ***

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From the producers of Little Miss Sunshine comes this similarly titled but much darker comedy drama, with Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as two sisters with an unusual cleaning business; they specialize in sorting out bloody crime scenes. Christine Jeffs directs from a script by Megan Holley, with Alan Arkin and Steve Zahn providing reliable support as the unreliable father and the local cop involved with the girls. Packed with unsavoury but fascinating details about a side of the cleaning industry rarely seen outside of Pulp Fiction, Sunshine Cleaning is a blackly comic showcase for Adams and Blunt, both of whom excel as the entrepreneurial sisters.