Alex Sitaras: December is the month perhaps best known amongst cinephiles for being the month where the heavyweight Oscar contenders step forward and make themselves known to audiences. While many of this year’s top contenders (Roma, Green Book, etc) were released in November, a few of these contenders remain to be released including Adam McKay‘s Vice. McKay’s prior film, The Big Short, captured the financial crisis of ’08 and his newest explores the Bush administration, in particular centering on the vice presidency of Dick Cheney. The film stars a number of A-list actors including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Steve Carell, as well as Sam Rockwell, fresh off a win for Best Supporting Actor in last year’s Three Billboards, no doubt hoping for similar acclaim in Vice for his role as George W. Bush.
Ben McDonald: Like most biopics for me, Vice is one of those films that I never had much interest in until I saw trailer. Christian Bale plays Cheney in the film, a casting that doesn’t make much sense on paper, but actually looks and sounds brilliant when you see him speak in character. As many Bale fans will note, the actor has once again drastically altered his body to accommodate his role as the infamous vice president, gaining what looks to be a solid 40 to 60 pounds. Bale has a history of gaining and losing notable amounts of weight for his films, namely in The Machinist, The Dark Knight Trilogy, and American Hustle.
I wasn’t a die-hard fan of The Big Short, but I commend McKay for being able to present (and explain) such a devastating incident as the 2008 financial crisis with a unique blend of humor and directed political anger. I suspect, given Cheney’s retrospective notoriety amongst liberals, that Vice will continue the precedent set by McKay’s previous film. I believe you haven’t seen The Big Short, Alex, so what stands out to you about Vice?
Alex: Correct, I’ve not seen The Big Short. Like you mentioned, Bale’s acting is very much a draw for some people, myself included. While the quality of one’s acting is by no means purely dependent on physical transformation, Bale is a great actor to boot and it’s been a year since we’ve seen him in a role (he is in this year’s Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, but that is voice acting and motion capture) so I’m looking forward to seeing him perform again. Rockwell’s performance is also something I’m curious about given his rise in prominence the past few years. Seeing him as George W. Bush will make for some interesting critical and audience responses.
Tying into that, I’m also really curious how people will respond to this film. America is perhaps the most divided it’s been in decades and a film like Vice has to toe the line between truth, criticism, brevity, and entertainment value in order to succeed, a tough balance. That balance is also one that McKay seemingly pulled off well in The Big Short, so that has piqued my interest in McKay’s followup.
Focusing on a different part of the world, but also very much within the realm of social commentary, is Nadine Labaki‘s Capernaum. The film is set in Lebanon and centers on a young child, Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), who sues his parents for the ‘crime’ of giving him life in a chaotic world. Obviously a highly fictionalized scenario, and one that is bold to take as the focus of a film. Just based on the Cannes press conference and various interviews, Capernaum seems very much to be a labor of love and also very much borrowing from actual circumstances that children face growing up in the Middle East. Zain Al Rafeea himself was a Syrian refugee that Labaki discovered.
Ben: I regrettably did not get to see Capernaum during my brief stint at Cannes, but I met a handful of people there that did and all praised it highly. According to them, the 12-year-old actor delivers a stirring performance which some have even dared to call the best child performance they’ve ever seen.
Capernaum looks to be a real tear-jerker based on its devastating premise, but like you mention it seems to come from a place of deep love and I’m very much hoping to eventually see it. The film is also the Lebanese entry for Best Foreign Language Picture, so it may pick up more recognition from the film world as we head into awards season.
Another foreign Oscar entry being released this month is a film that I did see at Cannes, Polish auteur Paweł Pawlikowski‘s Cold War. Starring Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot as two star-crossed but hopelessly miserable lovers, the film follows the couple across twenty-some years in the height of Cold War Europe. The film is somewhat of an unofficial offshoot of Pawlikowski’s previous 2015 Best Foreign Picture winner Ida, which featured Kulig as a background jazz singer (that could very likely be her same character in Cold War). Interestingly enough, Pawlikowski has stated on the record that this film is loosely based on the unhappy story of his own parents.
I really enjoyed Cold War when I saw it at Cannes. Like Ida, it’s a brisk watch at just 85 minutes, and it features a similarly stark, black-and-white palette in its cinematic depiction of war-ravaged Europe. To me, Pawlikowski’s restrained style is incredibly rewarding, and the way he plainly yet intricately frames his shots is simply immaculate. Since you didn’t particularly care for Ida when I chose it for our weekly film club, what are you looking forward to about Cold War, Alex?
Alex: Putting me on the spot, aren’t you? I’ll stand by it though. There’s been countless films related to the Holocaust and WWII, and I didn’t connect to Ida as well as I have for other films that depict that era. That being said, I won’t judge a director on one film alone and there were elements of Ida that I enjoyed. In particular, the aspect ratio is the same as classic European films, and there’s a distinct effort in the cinematography to appear like these films of the past while also displaying a modern touch. Cold War looks to continue these directorial choices as well. I have no doubt that I’d enjoy films from Pawlikowski, it’s just a matter of connecting to the stories he chooses to tell.
Ben: Haha, I was more genuinely curious than anything else. You definitely bring up a fair point, and I think if the post-Holocaust narrative was the only thing that threw you off about Ida, you’ll most likely enjoy Cold War.
Alex: The last two films we discuss look to be the more experimental of this month’s selections, the first of which I’d like to delve into is Robert Zemeckis‘s Welcome to Marwen. The film is inspired by a documentary Marwencol about a man who is brutally attacked and loses nearly all his memory. To cope with his crisis, he creates a miniature model of World War II-era Belgium as well as dolls representing himself and people he knows. He names his city “Marwencol”, a construct that is much safer for him than the real world. Steve Carell stars as the lead in this film, notable for his success in expressing grief and thoughtful sadness in his recent dramatic acting in Last Flag Flying and Beautiful Boy.
To me, Welcome to Marwen instantly made me recall watching Anomalisa though Marwen appears to be heartwarming film rather than bleak. Still, the dolls in Marwen representing real people does come off as slightly creepy in the trailer for the film, so I could see Welcome to Marwen having a high ceiling and a low floor in regards to how audiences respond.
Ben: This one only just appeared on my radar for some reason, but I’m all in favor of anything with Steve Carell in a dramatic role. This film certainly looks eccentric though, especially for Zemeckis (famous of course for crowd-pleasers such as Forrest Gump, Back to the Future, and Castaway). With Carell’s vulnerable performance as a victim of brain damage and assault, I can see this going down the route of an empathy film (a la Gump), but it’ll be interesting to see if audiences react similarly despite the surrealist storytelling methods.
Alex: The last film of this month’s selection is Brady Corbet‘s Vox Lux. The film stars Natalie Portman as a popstar on the rise, one born out of tragedy whose performance bears some visual resemblance to early Lady Gaga‘s. Obviously the film will draw some comparisons to Portman’s unhinged performance in Black Swan and it should be exciting to see her take on such an intense role again.
Ben: I’m really looking forward to Vox Lux. I absolutely adored Portman’s performance in Black Swan, and that delirious kind of uncomfortable intensity is exactly what I’m hoping she delivers again here. The majority of festival reviews and reactions have indicated that Vox Lux is disturbingly compelling and highly stylized, yet I’ve also read some criticisms of Corbet’s writing being uneven and tedious. Either way, I’m thoroughly looking forward to seeing the film and especially Portman’s performance.
[Editor’s Note: If Beale Street Could Talk was included in November’s Most Anticipated article. The film’s release date has since been rescheduled to this month, but not eligible for inclusion in this month’s selection because the film has already been selected as a Most Anticipated title.]