Vice film review *****

Vice, 30th April 2019

It’s been a shocking year so far in terms of getting to the cinema for the Tourist. No excuses. He has the time, the wherewithal and the desire but the theatre and concert addiction, (there have also been a few notable misses on the exhibition front), have crowded out film. There is also the not insubstantial fact that every time he looks to see what is on offer, most of it looks to be utter sh*te, and that the more intimate, thoughtful art-housey European guff that the Tourist prefers can probably wait until a subscription opportunity presents itself. This is patently a self-con, a great film should be always be seen on a big screen, but the Tourist justifies the primacy of theatre in his cultural life by pointing out that theatre is alive. The same production of the same play will vary, as much because of the reaction of the audience as the performances of the actors, and different productions of the same play ….. well just ask my chum BUD. Film, by contrast, is static. Once committed it never changes.

That doesn’t make film a lesser art form. Far from it. Just, right now, the Tourist cares more about theatre than film. And there is just too much to see and learn about even with the luxury of all the time in the world. Anyone who is able, (not even fit as the Tourist can testify), in retirement and can’t find things to do just isn’t trying hard enough. Anyway, for the moment, cinema is taking a bit of a back seat.

That’s not to say that the Tourist hasn’t racked up a fair few film classics so far this year in the discomfort of his own home. (Never managed to find a chair with the perfect construction to support the Tourist’s generous frame and the rest of the family have selfishly secured a more optimal viewing angle). Moreover, and we shall return to this at some point, the Tourist after years of mocking GoT without ever having seen it has bootcamped almost the entirely Westeros back catalogue in the past few weeks so that he is able to criticise from a position of knowledge. It’s eaten into the available hours mind. For your edification, and the Tourist’s own amusement, here is a list, in reverse chronology of the best of what I have seen since the incident that spared me from incessant wage-slavery. You will see there are a fair few “all time greats” here, as the Tourist values the opinion of experts, is easily impressed and, above all, is keen to show off his cultural “cleverness”. Comments welcome.

(BTW for those who prefer to ignore and belittle the facts expressed by those who know what they are talking about, or see conspiracy to deceive at every turn, may I respectfully suggest they give up on their jobs. After all presumably any skills they might have are either made up or valueless based on their own logic).

  • Roma
  • Strangers On A Train
  • Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
  • Okja
  • Sunset Boulevard
  • Network
  • Marnie
  • Ace in the Hole
  • La Regle de Jeu
  • Mona Lisa
  • I Am Not A Witch
  • Doctor Strangelove
  • Deliverance
  • The German Doctor
  • 13 Assassins
  • Macbeth
  • Baby Driver
  • Don’t Look Now
  • The Piper
  • Sweet Bean (An)
  • Jackie Brown
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Taxi Driver
  • Catch Me If You Can
  • The Player
  • The Last King of Scotland
  • Notes on Blindness
  • The Hunt
  • Casablanca
  • This is England
  • Dazed and Confused
  • Shakespeare in Love
  • Goodfellas
  • Look Who’s Back
  • The Look of Silence
  • Twelve Angry Men
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Gravity
  • The African Queen
  • Great Expectations
  • King of Comedy
  • The Revenant
  • The Wicker Man
  • Foxcatcher
  • All About Eve
  • The Master
  • The Apartment
  • High Rise
  • Berberian Sound Studio
  • Chinatown
  • A Field in England
  • Elf
  • The Haunting
  • In Bruges
  • The Third Man
  • The Searchers
  • Force Majeure
  • Hidden
  • Citizen Kane
  • Brick Lane
  • Amy
  • Wolf of Wall Street
  • The Birds
  • Beasts of No Nation
  • Hannah and Her Sisters
  • Cinema Paradiso
  • Funny Games
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • A Matter of Life and Death
  • Tokyo Story
  • Hamlet
  • Strictly Ballroom
  • Moon
  • Barton Fink
  • 12 Years A Slave
  • Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
  • Night of the Hunter
  • Vertigo
  • The Godfather 1, 2 and 3
  • Mad Max 2
  • Gangs of New York
  • Withnail and I
  • Double Indemnity
  • Gladiator
  • The Madness of King George
  • The Lady in the Van
  • Groundhog Day
  • The Last Temptation of Christ
  • Palio
  • American Werewolf in London
  • Dead of Night
  • On the Waterfront
  • The French Connection
  • Rope
  • Audition
  • Blade Runner
  • North by Northwest
  • LA Confidential
  • Babette’s Feast
  • Life of Brian
  • To Catch a Thief
  • The Deerhunter
  • Seven Psychopaths
  • Trollhunter
  • The Crying Game

Right, diversion over, on to Vice then. Whilst this didn’t entirely pass me by when it came out and I must have read some decent reviews, it didn’t leap out at me either. Which is odd given the content, a comic hatchet job on, Dick Cheney (above) one of the architects of the America First doctrine of politics, the director and screenwriter Adam McKay is responsible for two of the funniest films ever made in Anchorman and Talladega Nights, and whose The Big Short I thoroughly enjoyed, and the cast, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell and Steve Carell, all of whom can, unlike some of their Hollywood peers, actually act. Still a slot in the diary opened up and £3.75 later (yep that’s the pensioner price, even if you aren’t a pensioner) off I trotted.

I loved it. I can see that half of America, and presumably Blighty, would hate it because of its political stance, and many more because of its breathless construction but this, for me, is what makes it so brilliant. Adam McKay doesn’t f*ck about taking sides when it comes to satirising Cheney’s legacy, even as he questions his own veracity, and he mixes up chronology and technique, (a mystery narrator, documentary footage, fourth wall breaks, a nod to Macbeth, crass symbolism, voice-overs, flash-backs, a meta focus group, even a false ending). A kind of cinematic Brechtian satire, familiar from The Big Short, but here more biting and certainly funnier.

Dick Cheney was the Vice President under George W Bush from 2001 to 2009, probably the most powerful in history, and certainly the least liked on his departure. After studying politics at Yale and the University of Wyoming (his home state), he served as an intern for Donald Rumsfeld in the Nixon administration, rose to became Chief of Staff under Ford from 1975 to 1977, represented Wyoming in the House of Representatives from 1979 to 1989, then became Secretary of State under George HW Bush from 1989 to 1993, overseeing Operation Desert Storm in the First Gulf War. He was Chairman and CEO of Halliburton during the Clinton regime before being chosen as GW’s running mate. He was a key player in the response to 9/11 and the Global War on Terrorism, sanctioning wire-tapping and torture, and promoting the invasion of Iraq. Together with his acolytes, including Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld, “Scooter” Libby, David Addington, John Yu and Karl Rove, he expanded the notion of executive privilege and the unitary executive theory and legitimised enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding.

Now Republican administrations, as far as this laymen can observe, seem to function best when there is a genial chump as front man, letting the machiavellian brains behind the throne crack on with doing the nasty stuff. Cheney is particularly important because he was, as even this satire shows, an extremely intelligent man and gifted political operator. It strikes me that the problem with the current administration is that the chief is anything but genial and that there is, in contrast to the relationship between Cheney and GW, no hint of intelligent design behind him, as the GOP is either consumed by an ideology of opposition or, more prosaically, no-one knows what the POTUS is going to do from one tweet to the next, least of all him. Mind you I suppose the caprice, narcissism, limited attention span and questionable work ethic combine to limit the damage, though others are worryingly taking advantage notably in the composition of the judiciary.

What drives these blokes to behave like this? Money? For sure, though Cheney could have made more sticking with Halliburton, especially after smoothing the path for big oil at home and abroad, (specifically in Iraq as Vice shows). Legacy? That only comes once influence is cemented and, if we are to believe the film, Dick only got going after a kick up the arse from wife-to-be Lynne. Faith? Cheney was a Methodist but his religious belief didn’t seem to be at the core of his identity. Ideology? Of course but, in an early amusing scene, Cheney’s politics only become clear to him after he gets going. Not sure I believe that. Our politics are a function of upbringing and environment shaped by experience. For many the critical faculty that higher education brings leads to a politics based on what one stands for. For some though it simply reinforces what they are against. So “conservatives” like Cheney are against rights for minorities. Against change. Against other ways of thinking about the world. Against global co-operation except where it suits their definition of, in this case, America’s interests. Against the “other”. Against collectivism. Against intervention in the working of “free” markets, ironic since “free” markets always seem to require constant intervention in order to be “free” and to resolve the inefficiencies built into the (still required) price mechanism.

Of course when ideology is confronted by immediate, personal reality we can all become a little unstuck. In Cheney’s case this challenge came in his refusal to back GW and his party on the issue of same sex marriage for the very reason that his younger daughter Mary is a lesbian. The film implies that even this principle was abandoned to offer endorsement to his other daughter, Liz’s, successful campaign to become congresswoman for Wyoming. (US politics being more nepotistic than Ancient Rome it would seem). There is plenty of material which documents Cheney’s more equivocal activities whilst in office, notably the Washington Post’s 2007 appraisal and various documentaries, and DC himself was prone to be candid at times, notably his “so” response to a journalist’s remark that the US people had lost confidence in the Iraq War. He has also published a couple of lengthy memoirs which centre on his doctrine of American exceptionalism and influence and gives his side of this ‘story”.

Still it is up to you how much of Adam McKay’s polemic you wish to believe. That’s the problem with knowledge. Even the bit based on experience and perception can be misleading. And, in an ever complex world of information, we seem to getting into a right pickle when it comes to knowledge based on education, that is what comes to us from third parties, outside our own experience. No wonder we are all so confused and angry.

Anyway back to what drives men like DC, almost always men, who are so convinced of their righteousness that they never seem to question what they do or why they do it. Whether their actions are just or whether they simply serve their interests or beliefs, (generally strongest in the abstract fictions that bind us together: money, nationhood, history, culture, freedom, religion). If you ask me they are most dangerous not when their beliefs and values or being formed, nor when their sense of their rectitude is at its strongest in their urge to lead and save us, but when they exercise power simply because they can. I don’t know anything about the academic literature on power but thinking about this will set me on my way. There is a line early on from Rumsfeld which identifies the young Cheney’s dedication to power, loyalty and discretion (read, hiding stuff). And the scene prior to this where Rumsfeld just collapses into giggles when DC asks him “what we believe in”. That just about sums it up.

Anyway it looks like DC ended up as one of this men, a huge influence on where we are now. And Adam McKay’s film, underneath the laughs, and there are lots of them, serves to highlight this. His early labouring days, the hard drinking which led to a drink driving conviction, twice, the Yale drop-out, draft deferments, votes against sanctions imposed on the apartheid regime in SA and against the early release of Nelson Mandela, Desert Storm and the Panama invasion, cuts to military spending, intervention in Somalia, accounting irregularities at Halliburton, the 2000 election with the contested Florida outcome, the creation of a transition office ahead of the result, claims that Iraq possessed WMD and that Saddam Hussain was linked to al-Qaeda, the genesis of Islamic State, the pressure exerted on Colin Powell at the UN, lobbying for big oil and weakening environmental controls, concealment of documents, the Plame affair, the Taliban’s assassination attempt, his various offices in the House and in the Senate, his heart problems and, amongst all of the above, the event for which he is best known in popular imagination, shooting his mate in the bum on a quail hunt. Mr Kay certainly had plenty to choose from when making his “bio-comedy-drama” and most of it gets in one way or another.

The creative havoc that Adam Kay has unleashed on the material though needed to be balanced by a superb central performance and this he gets from Christian Bale. He has put on the pounds to look the part, with great make-up work, and, I assume, he has captured Cheney’s alarmingly blunt, charmless manner to a tee. Physically slow, mentally quick. Scarily self-possessed even when suffering a heart attack. Most intimidating when pausing mid sentence. Obviously CB was never going to win any meaningful awards given the nature of the film but it’s easy to see why he was nominated. As good as his Patrick Bateman, a nihilist from the previous decade.

Sam Rockwell as GW Bush, Steve Carell as Rumsfeld, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell and scores of others, (even Alfred Molina pops up as a waiter in a fantasy sequence, delivering a menu of euphemisms for atrocity), don’t really get much opportunity to inhabit their characters, but Amy Adams as loyal wife and supporter Lynne is utterly convincing.

Fragmentary, full of holes, partial, wild, high-concept but very funny. As Adam McKay indicates at the outset the creative team here “did its f*cking best”. They certainly did.

Red at the Wyndham’s Theatre review *****

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Red

Wyndham’s Theatre, 21st June 2018

The original production of John Logan’s play Red at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009 with Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne passed me by. More fool me. So I was looking forward to catching this revival directed by Michael Grandage, (who directed the original), with Alfred Enoch now playing fictional assistant Ken alongside Alfred Molina once again as Mark Rothko. It went directly to Broadway after the Donmar, and has popped up over 30 locations since, but this was the first revival in the UK.

Red isn’t a complicated set up. Ken pitches up to “interview” for the job. Rothko takes a shine to him. Their relationship develops. It is really just a device to explore the nature of art and artists in general, as well as specific, terms. Rothko wasn’t a jolly chap by all accounts but he thought long and hard, perhaps a little too long and hard, about what he did. The play focusses on the months in 1959 when Rothko had taken on the commission to create a series of panels, like a Renaissance great, to hang in the restaurant of the Four Season hotel in the Seagram building in New York, a commission he eventually refused to complete.

I have been fortunate/unfortunate enough to eat a couple of times in the restaurant. It is a cathedral to late C20 neo-liberal capitalism. It doesn’t need any paintings. It is certainly not a place for quiet contemplation. Apparently Rothko was partly inspired by the vestibule of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence on a visit to Europe in 1959, another “f*ck you” little people, we’re the elite” OTT mausoleum. Apparently on an earlier trip in 1950 he was bowled over by Fra Angelico’s supreme frescoes at San Marco. I know which I prefer.

The set from Michael Grandage’s regular collaborator, Christopher Oram, complemented by the masterly lighting of Neil Austin, is a triumph. It imagines the studio in the Bowery where Rothko created the Seagram murals with representations of some of the 40 or so canvases/studies that Rothko created, three different series, in dark reds and browns, to meet the commission. We are afforded an insight into Rothko’s materials and (secret) process; in one marvellous scene we see real physicality as Molina and Enoch prepare a canvas with a wash. The activity provides a counterfoil to the initially one-sided, but increasingly argumentative, as Ken’s confidence grows, dialogue examining Rothko’s own frustrations with the Seagram commission itself and with the reaction of society to his own art.

Rothko was born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz in 1903 in Latvia of Russian-jewish descent and came to America with his family in 1913. His father died shortly afterwards and Rothko questioned his religion. He was brought up in Portland, Oregon and initially set out to be a union organiser given his strong socialist beliefs. Fiercely intelligent, he gained a scholarship to Yale but dropped out, moved to New York and became an artist and enrolled at a design school where he was taught by Arshile Gorky and Max Weber. Initially he was influenced by German Expressionism, turning out some well regarded early work, though needing to teach at the Brooklyn Jewish to supplement his income. In the early 1930’s he entered a circle of artists, (including Alfred Gottlieb and Barnett Newman), who surrounded Milton Avery and took trips to paint in Massachusetts. In 1934 he had his first solo show which revealed his skill with deep colour, founded a movement called The Ten, exhibited in Paris and New York and worked with the Works Progress Administration alongside the likes of Pollock and de Kooning.

Rothko’s singular way with colour was emerging in his figurative work but he also experimented with surrealism and paintings drawn from mythology. The influence of Europe was still strong even as the modernists in the US took aim against the specifically “American” art of the inter war years.  He separated from wife Edith for a short period in 1937 and took up US citizenship in 1938 and changed his name, fearing the wave of anti semitism might lead to deportation.

Rothko’s tireless search for an intellectual, cultural and philosophical framework for his art eventually led him to that other tormented soul Nietzsche, notably the Birth of Tragedy, which spurred a series of works drawn from Classical and Judaeo-Christian mythology. Following a less than successful exhibition at Macy’s department store in 1942 Rothko penned the following which about sums up the direction he was about to take. “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”

After separating from his wife again and a period of depression Rothko went to California and struck up a friendship with Clyfford Still who would become a clear influence on his work. I have a deep suspicion of much US Abstract Expressionism but Clyfford Still’s monumental slabs of bright colour, punctuated by jagged lines, and drawn from the landscape of his native North Dakota, are arresting and extremely beautiful. A return to New York, and another not entirely successful exhibition at the Guggenheim, saw Rothko move closer to pure abstraction which properly appeared from 1946 in the so called “multiform” paintings; blocks of colour devoid of human form, landscape or symbol. More essays, an obsession with Henri Matisse’s Red Studio and finally, in 1949, an exhibition of works which defined the Rothko style from there on in,  and now a cornerstone of modern Western art. The two or three blocks of complementary, coalescing, contrasting colours flickering and shifting with the light, though initially the tones were often quite bright; greens, blues alongside yellows and oranges.

Rothko’s popularity, and the value of his work, spiralled but he became increasingly protective of his art, and one might argue, overly grandiose in his claims for it. He asked viewers to examine the works from up close to intensify the “spiritual experience”. The colours got darker maybe mirroring the increasing darkness in the artist’s own pysche Cliche or not Rothko certainly walked the talk of the tortured artist, as did Pollock in his own way. His politics left him uneasy with the trappings of commercial success (Fortune magazine singled out his work for “investment), though he still reportedly liked the money. He got lumped in with his Abstract Expressionist peers, much to his chagrin, fell out with Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, who accused him of being a sell out, went through loads of assistants and became a father with second wife Mell. As his fame grew so did his alienation. Here was an artist who might have been happier to work in cloistered obscurity. Or would he?

That is were Red the play picks up the story. Now if I tell you that vast swathes of the potted bio above are referenced in the play, largely by Rothko himself, you will probably realise that you are in for a bit of a lecture here. However, by having Rothko pour it all out to Ken, himself an aspiring artist, though he never plucks up the courage to show his work to Rothko, it doesn’t feel ponderously didactic. It probably helps if you have a rough idea of what Rothko was about, and a smattering of art history, but it is by no means essential. the play stands as terrific entertainment even without that.

Which frankly in large part is down to Alfred Molina’s amazing performance. He just is Mark Rothko. I say this secure in the knowledge that I have no idea what Mr Rothko was like but, thanks to the illusion of theatre, I, and I would be willing to guess all the audiences that have seen this, believe that this is Rothko. Which means all of the references to his own life and art, to the history of art and to the relationship between art, society and economy, fall naturally out of the discussions with Ken. Above all you accept that MR didn’t go in for small talk, (which reminds me there is no little humour on show to leaven proceedings), and, for all his intellectual certainty there was something something lacking emotionally. in the man. An intellectual prize fighter, spoiling for a fight, but desperate for attention. Apollo and Dionysius. Which explains why he lets Ken stick around for a bit.

Rothko went on to even greater fame after pulling the plug on the Seagram murals, (some of which now hang in the special room at the centre of Tate Modern). Other mural projects followed culminating in the slightly preposterous conceit of the Rothko Chapel in Texas. However he was overtaken by Pop Art in the 1960’s, a movement he despised, but which is, in the play, championed by Ken.

A heart condition, fags, booze, bad diet, separation from second wife, smaller paintings and a Marat style suicide and an argument over his estate. There is probably another play here. 836 paintings, spread around public and private collections, including in his Latvian birthplace, books, posters, postcards, snapchats, there are few artists whose work is so well known. I always want to sneer and walk away whenever I see a late Rothko, (I haven’t seen enough of his earlier incarnations to make a judgment), but I never can. They cast a spell and, cliche alert again, invite contemplation. Such is the power of colour, paint, form and tone and Rothko’s special technique.

The play lasts just 90 minutes yet the Wyndham’s and MGC folk are asking you to shelve out full West End prices. Is this good value? I’ll leave you to decide but it is a superb play and better than most anything else in the West End right now. A Russian oligarch paid near US$ 200m for a 1951 Rothko painting a few years back. Presumably he thought he got value for money. Mind you he is the same fellow he recently sold the ropey Leonardo for US$ 450m and appears to have been conned by his dealer. Look him up. Quite a character.