FilmSpace: Vice; Destroyer; The Mule; Isolani

Film critic Calum Cooper looks back on some of the week’s additional releases. This week, the oscar-nominated biopic on Dick Cheney, Nicole Kidman as a hardened detective with a gruesome past, Clint Eastwood’s latest feature, and an independent Scottish film playing at the Renfrew Street Cineworld.

Vice – ★★☆☆☆

Political division seems rifer than ever before. Left and right alike are doubling down and looking for validation of their opinions, including with films, rather than having civil debates or conversations. Because of this, it would be dead easy for me to shower praise on this film just because I happen to agree with its views.

In other words, I don’t dislike Vice because I have some appreciation for Dick Cheney. I don’t. I dislike Vice because it’s not as smart as it thinks it is.

Adam McKay directs this biopic on the Vice President of the United States from 2001 to 2009. Cheney was, and still is, a controversial figure, so a biopic on his rise to power, and how he shaped America as a whole, is an intriguing subject matter. Except Vice doesn’t tell us anything that a quick skim through Wikipedia wouldn’t tell us for ourselves. It has very little unique insight to share, and the various styles in which it attempts to convey what it does have comes off as either misplaced or pretentious.

While the film does have strong elements – the acting, particularly of Christian Bale and Amy Adams as Dick and Lynne Cheney, is very good, and there are one or two interesting aspects, such as Cheney’s surprisingly humble reaction to his daughter’s coming out – I had a sinking feeling the moment it opened. It goes for a tongue-in-cheek tone, similar to McKay’s last biopic, The Big Short. A screen comes up revealing that, because Cheney is a private person, they had to fill in some gaps themselves despite their best efforts. It explains certain creative choices, such as Jesse Plemmons playing a Cheney-obsessed narrator. But I think it harms the film, as it gives the impression that there wasn’t much material to work with, thus creating an air of fakery around many of the following sequences.

Vice doesn’t tell us anything that a quick skim through Wikipedia wouldn’t tell us for ourselves. It has very little unique insight to share, and the various styles in which it attempts to convey what it does have comes off as either misplaced or pretentious.

Regardless, I pushed that feeling down and waited for the film to show its chops. It rarely did. The first half hour or so is dedicated to Cheney’s early life and career in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan eras, is ultimately fluff. The appeal of the film is examining Cheney’s actions during Bush’s era, actions which would’ve revealed what kind of character he is anyway. So spending time on what he was like before feels like needless padding, with many of the adopted techniques, including a fake ending, feeling forced.

That fake ending is part of a tone that I don’t think matches with the material the way it did with The Big Short. That film covered the 2007/8 financial crash, which was awful too. But the tongue-in-cheek tone worked because it A) ridiculed the sheer stupidity of the people involved who should’ve seen this coming, and B) actually helped us understand the crash itself in a little more detail. A lot of the negative things that transpired from the Cheney era were due to his own power-hungry avarice, something this film doesn’t dispute. It’s trying to be a mockery while also trying to hold him accountable, and I don’t think it succeeds at either. The serious moments don’t feel sincere and the jokey moments feel lofty. When you follow a scene of the Cheneys talking in Shakespearian dialect with live footage of Flight 175 going into the World Trade Centre, or make torture and the deaths of up to a million Iraqi civilians from an illegal war akin to restaurant menu options, it kind of stops being funny doesn’t it?

Even if these factors were discarded, the way the film presents its historical evidence seems workmanlike. When it actually does get to Cheney’s term, it feels like a history essay that was done at the last minute. It certainly shows how Cheney could exploit opportunities, but it seems to merely reference that events happened rather than make compelling drama out of it. It sails the surface of history instead of scuba diving into it like the best biopics do. When you add on the tone and transpiring creative choices, including a climatic fourth wall break that felt counter-productive to the film’s central message, you get a product which shows a lot but ultimately says nothing.

Maybe Vice would’ve been better served as a mini-series, but as a film I didn’t find it smart, funny, or insightful. It’s all bark and no bite. I have no problem with people enjoying the film – that’s all a matter of opinion – but the mass amount of accolades does baffle me. I can’t believe I live in a dimension where this and Bohemian Rhapsody get Best Picture nominations, and Leave No Trace gets nothing. Then again, I find the Oscars overrated anyway.

Destroyer – ★★★☆☆

Destroyer is brought to us from the director of Jennifer’s Body, Karyn Kusama, who proves herself to have a real knack for noir thrillers here. Told through a mixture of flashbacks and present day time, Nicole Kidman plays Erin Bell, who looks incredibly worse for wear throughout the film. She investigates a criminal gang she was once undercover with in order to finally bring its leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), to justice after years of being haunted by their actions.

Kusama has had a very fruitful career, even if you remove the cult following that has since developed around Jennifer’s Body. She has directed an assortment of genres, including horror, sports drama, and science fiction, and that’s only her feature films. Some of her works have been more successful than others, but I like how no two of her films are alike, aside from the notable common denominator of complex female leads.

Kidman’s Erin Bell is no exception, and what a fascinating character she is. When we first meet her, she looks as if she’s gone through hell and back, and in a way she has. The character is very well written, but Kidman elevates the role to a higher plain. She taps into the darkness of the character, and how underneath her vast intelligence and drive to catch this man is a gargantuan cesspool of regret and inner woe that she keeps bottled up. We see how this deep rooted remorse over her past and decisions have affected her relationships with her colleagues and family. This includes a complicated relationship with her teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn), and how Erin desperately doesn’t want her to repeat the mistakes she’s made herself. Other actors, such as Toby Kebbell and Sebastian Stan, deliver strong work too, but Kidman is simply magnetic in the role.

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I also enjoyed the way that the story unfolded. It’s Erin who remains front and centre – to the point where she’s featured in almost every single frame of the film – but the film slowly peals back her layers through its flashback segments and how they contrast with how she is in the present, as well as the ideology of and operations conducted by the gang she is investigating. The film takes its time with this, utilising slow burning suspense and careful placements of information so that we are constantly on edge and waiting to see what unfolds as the narrative continues.

What it amounts to is a quietly intense, and grippingly atmospheric piece that displays extraordinary character depth and a natural talent for action and crime dramas on Kusama’s part. The best scenes of the film are two shoot out scenes, the first one concerning Erin and two colleagues interrupting an ongoing heist being particularly exciting. The framing of the cameras and the speed of the editing creates a fast-paced sense of kinetic energy, immersing us in the action as much as the subtle, structured drama.

The film is not perfect however. It suffers from an excess of characters within this gang, meaning we don’t get too much of a gage on why they are as threatening to the wider community as they are to Erin, outside of being criminals. On top of that there are sequences and moments within that feel random or awkwardly placed. But it does little to take away from the film’s main strengths – its main character, its switch on traditionally gendered roles, and the underlying factors that make her and the story interesting, creating a final shot and, by extension, a whole film that leaves a lasting impact.

The Mule – ★★☆☆☆

I have real mixed thoughts on Clint Eastwood’s latest feature. It’s one of those films where I can see what the aim of it was, and in some ways I think it works. But in other respects I think there are factors that prohibit it from being on par with some of Eastwood’s better works. He has a very hit and miss track record when it comes to directing, but The Mule is a film I can’t seem to get my head round.

Based on a true story, Eastwood plays Earl Stone, an elderly man who seems to be an open, warm personality as he attends a flower show. We later see that by attending he is neglecting his daughter’s wedding. He already has a tense relationship with his family, the sole exception being his granddaughter Ginny (Tarissa Farmiga), as his job often involved him driving across the country for long periods of time. He’s offered pay for driving an unspecified product from one point to another. The product of course turns out to be cocaine, the idea being that no one would suspect a 90-year-old man as a drug courier. Eventually Earl gets sucked deeper and deeper into the organisation, feeling a sense of purpose again, as DEA agents led by Bradley Cooper attempt to bust the gang.

Eastwood’s character is one of the stronger aspects of the film. Not only is Eastwood on top form as usual acting wise, but I found him to be poignant and well-meaning, yet the exact definition of a fish out of water. He’s a very non-PC personality, often using racial or derogatory slurs accidentally and going on frequent rants about how the internet has ruined everything, which will either work for you or it won’t. But I thought it added more layers to his personality, particularly since he’s not always that likeable. He’s a relic of the past left to wander a world that’s evolving so rapidly he can’t possibly keep up with it. How someone as supposedly hardened as him didn’t recognise right away that he was working for a drug gang is iffy, but I thought Eastwood captured Earl’s humanity well and encouraged empathy towards him with how hard he seemed to be trying despite some of his lesser qualities.

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However my lack of fulfilment boils down to an underwritten script, which is a shame as this is the work of Gran Torino writer, Nick Schenk. Although I found Earl to be a fairly strong character in theory, the people around him are given very little to do. The DEA agents chasing Earl are played by the likes of Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, and Laurence Fishburne, but I found them all so forgettable regardless. They serve only as the foils to Earl’s mission, with little development or personality to be found. The main antagonist is a caricature, and even Earl’s family, the people he is supposedly doing all of this for, seem criminally side-lined in favour of forced, repetitive monologues on how the younger generations are obsessed with mobile phones, and a rather regressive view on women that I struggled to ignore.

Because of this there’s little reason for the viewer to care about what is happening on screen, as even the film doesn’t seem to think there’s much urgency or dramatic weight to itself. The story is an interesting one, and Eastwood’s character is a solid driving force (no pun intended). But Eastwood’s direction is skewered between poignant fish out of water vibes and random, arguably misguided commentaries on the state of the world today.

There’s some effective cinematography, and plenty of good, emotional moments scattered in between. There’s definitely an audience for this film. But I found it a little too meandering as a whole once I really sat down and reflected on it. It’s an idea that seems good initially, but perhaps didn’t have enough material to really sink its teeth into. However, if you like the look of the film from the trailers, I do advise that you check it out for yourself and come to your own conclusions. After all, if Earl’s views are to go by, I’m but a mere millennial. What do I know?

Isolani – ★★☆☆☆

Buried somewhere underneath the muddy presentation of Isolani is a decent film. Set and shot in suburban Glasgow, it concerns a 17-year-old mother named Isla (Katie McLaughlin). She looks after her 4-year-old son, Jay, who is both deaf and mute, in a condemned council property that once belonged to her gran, as she is deeply estranged from her parents. She witnesses a murder take place outside her home, a murder she does not yet realise is tied to police corruption, meaning she has to tread carefully around the detectives she interacts with.

This is a legitimately interesting setup. The fact that it’s an Indie film made me even keener to like it. I’ve always been vocal about demanding more support for independent filmmakers like this film’s director, R. Paul Wilson, and I will continue to be so. The fact that he shot this film with a small budget and over a mere 26 days, then went on to bag showings at the Renfrew Street Cineworld is a remarkable achievement that shouldn’t be overlooked.

That being said though, Isolani just isn’t very good.

Much of this is down to an underdeveloped story, and technical creative choices that I thought took away more than they gave to the film. This includes using the same dissolving effect for, I’m convinced, every single transition, and very murky cinematography. I feel like they were both utilised to evoke feelings of suspense, which I understand. But the overly dark cinematography, even during scenes that were supposed to be set during the day, made it hard to see what was going on for chunks of the film. And the continuous reliance on the exact same transition effect, including an instance in a car where it seemed to cut before a scene had finished, starts creating a hypnotic effect of repetition that made me feel like I was sitting there for a lot longer than I actually was.

It’s just unfortunate that the story felt all over the place, the characters not nearly as interesting as they could’ve been, and the craftsmanship misguided. It resulted in an experience that I was constantly falling in and out of engagement with.

On top of that, the film crutches on clichés rather than expand upon the genuinely fascinating elements, such as how Isla copes with being shunned by her family and looking after a 4-year-old at such a young age. It makes reference to custody drama at intervals, but otherwise maintains focus on the police corruption side-plot, which I struggled to follow at various times. Because the characters, outside of Isla, feel like rough drafts and servicemen to the plot, I found myself forgetting who was who and what their significance to the story was. The fact that the acting as a whole left a lot to be desired didn’t help either, particularly concerning our main antagonist, who was already written in such an over the top manner that I couldn’t take him seriously.

There are things to enjoy about it in fairness. There’s an intriguing chess metaphor referred to throughout the story and the way it plays out – from the title to the opening quote to Catriona Evans’ detective carrying a chess piece with her – that I think could’ve gotten more focus. I also greatly appreciated the film’s attempts at building atmosphere and usage of the ‘show don’t tell’ rule. It’s just unfortunate that the story felt all over the place, the characters not nearly as interesting as they could’ve been, and the craftsmanship misguided. It resulted in an experience that I was constantly falling in and out of engagement with.

I didn’t think Isolani was an especially good film, but it was made by a promising filmmaker, whose decisions here are ones I don’t agree with as opposed to being inherently bad. I’m not sure what the general consensus towards this film is, but whether I’m part of it or not, I hope Wilson continues to aim high with his films. After all, I’ll take passion projects of any quality over a redundant, soulless blockbuster any day.

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