They are two of the most nominated films for this year’s Academy Awards.
“The Favourite”, the historical period comedy, scored a leading 10 nominations (tied with “Roma”) and “Vice”, about former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, earned the second most nominations – eight (tying it with “A Star Is Born”).
They have quite a bit in common; they’re about powerful people in history and the interesting lives they’ve led. And while great liberties have apparently been taken in both cases, these are two of 2018’s best movies and are deserving of every accolade.
So far, of all films nominated for Best Picture, only “Vice” has yet to play in local theaters, with “The Favourite” just having wrapped up a run at the Island House.
“Vice” (U.S. rated R)
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell
Genre: Biography, Comedy-Drama
It’s listed, shockingly, as a comedy-drama. But this is really much more of a shocking horror show.
While “Vice” certainly has a sense of humor – exceptionally cynical, warped, dark, twisted humor – this Adam McKay-directed and written pseudo-documentary-style biopic could scare the daylights out of you and/or make you incredibly angry or even more cynical about government, politics and politicians.
At its core, the film is an examination of Texas Governor George W. Bush’s pick of Cheney, the CEO of Halliburton Co., to be his Republican running mate in the 2000 presidential election. No stranger to politics, Cheney’s impressive résumé includes stints as White House chief of staff, House Minority Whip and defense secretary. When Bush wins by a narrow margin, Cheney begins to use his newfound power to help reshape the country and the world.
You may think you know most of what was going on during the tumultuous presidency of Bush Jr. (which now, in many ways, seems like preschool shenanigans compared to what the U.S. is seeing these days). But the machinations of Cheney, who here takes on airs of a comic book supervillain, will still be shocking.
Yes, it was a running joke in the 2000s that Cheney was the real president, and that Bush was just a puppet. But according to “Vice”, it was even more extreme than most could have ever imagined, particularly in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Is it all true? Even the film admits it’s hard to say exactly, and proclaims this in a most amusing way.
That there is this underlying humor throughout the picture should not be surprising, based on McKay’s record. The director and co-writer of “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” proved he has the chops and skill to tackle tough subject matter with his hilarious multi-Oscar nominated “The Big Short” (2015’s winner for Best Adapted Screenplay), which fantastically addressed the U.S. housing crisis in 2007 that ultimately led to the Great Global Recession.
With “Vice”, McKay has crafted a film that’s fascinating on many levels.
He makes some fascinating choices with his storytelling. The film does not progress in chronological order, and we hop back and forth in time, from the George W. Bush presidency to Nixon to Reagan to somewhere else.
There’s energetic and playful editing, with unusual images spliced into scenes. True, it’s perhaps leading commentary that suggests a certain bias of the filmmaker. But in most cases, it adds to the humor (although often it adds to the horror).
It’s fascinating in that it has a narrator, who appears on screen and talks directly to the audience, and has a very interesting connection with Cheney.
But above all, it’s a fascinating study of the Cheneys – especially Dick but also his wife Lynne, who turns out to be quite a firecracker (the Cheneys break out into Shakespearean dialogue at one point when plotting their futures!).
They are brought to life through astounding performances from Christian Bale and Amy Adams. As always, Bale loses himself in his role. It’s creepy how much he looks and sounds like Cheney. Adams does an almost similar transformation as his wife, and Sam Rockwell, last year’s Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor, also “becomes” George W.
All three are deservedly nominated for Oscars (Bale for Best Actor, and Adams and Rockwell in the supporting categories). Steve Carell also does a fine job as Donald Rumsfeld.
The constant shift between serious drama and wacky comedy has the film all over the place. And for many, that will be a big problem. But for the most part, the bizarro nature of it all – Cheney has a heart attack after seemingly every half hour – really works.
“Vice” is not exactly a movie one can love. Even if you really enjoy and think it’s among the year’s best, as I do, it’s not “lovable” – possibly because of the chief subject matter. And if you think it’s a hatchet job, you’ll certainly not be amused at all. But stick around for the real end credits though (there are multiple); just like those supervillain comic book movies, there’s a brilliant extra scene that haters of this movie will truly enjoy.
And that’s just it. “Vice” is a movie that will move you. It will make you laugh. Or it will make you mad. Or it will make you dismiss the world as having gone to hell. But you will feel something!
“The Favourite” (U.S. rated R)
Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz
Genre: Biography, Comedy-Drama
“Medieval Mean Girls”.
Well, the 1700s weren’t technically the “Middle Ages”, but you get the picture.
Based on a real story involving Queen Anne of Great Britain (who reigned from 1702 to 1714) and her closest confidants, “The Favourite” may have taken quite a few liberties, but most of the folks depicted here actually did exist.
In the early 18th century, England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne, and her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs the country in her stead, while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah, and she takes Abigail under her wing. As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen’s companion, with Abigail seeing this as a chance to return to her aristocratic roots – ambitions she will not let Sarah or anyone else derail, all while Sarah becomes increasingly jealous and bitter.
Like “Vice”, this is an exceptionally dark and sarcastic comedy. And like “Vice”, there are some bold choices in editing, music, pacing and storyline progression.
Some of it may seem like being different for the sake of being different. But for the most part, “The Favourite” is a stylish production seeking to find its own voice. And it succeeds brilliantly!
But along with that outstanding film editing, beautiful costuming and production design, and cinematography – for which it has received Oscar nominations for each – there’s this exceptionally original screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (also nominated this year), with dialogue that rolls off the actors’ tongues like the foulest, most X-rated Shakespearean play (the dreaded C-word is uttered at least three times every 15 minutes!).
And those actors all seem to be having a blast, especially its three stars, Colman (Oscar nominated for Best Actress), Weisz and Stone (both nominated for Best Supporting Actress). Their performances propel “The Favourite” to near the top of the class for films released last year. They feed off each other and fuel each other in the wild zaniness. Every part of their interactions is delightful – the facial expressions, witty banter, insults that sound like poetry.
Particularly with Weisz and Stone, not since the 2004 high school comedy “Mean Girls” has the transition from frenemy to enemy been so much fun to watch. While this raunchy tale likely won’t ever be suitable or accurate enough for airing on PBS or H2 (the History Channel’s sister network that actually still deals with history), it is a rollicking good time, and one of only a handful of recent films that would likely be even more enjoyable with multiple viewings.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email [email protected] and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.