Oliver Stone’s ‘W.’ Gives Empathy to an Unfortunate President of the United States

W movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

You really have to admire what Oliver Stone pulled off here as he himself has been a big critic of the Bush Administration (and who isn’t these days?). Like “Nixon,” Stone has given us an empathetic portrait of an infamous President and tears down the stereotypes we have about this particular person so we can see him up close for who he really is. It is not a Bush bashing piece, but that would have been pointless anyway because we bash George W. Bush on a regular basis. With “W.,” Stone has given us what is essentially a father-son story as George W. is a man who spent the majority of his life trying to get his father’s, President George H.W. Bush, respect. It is clear from the start Bush Sr. respects Jeb more than he who bears his first and last name, and this leads George W. to do things he would never have done otherwise, such as run for political office.

“W.” covers George W. Bush from his days at a Yale fraternity hazing to the end of his first term as President. His second term is not covered here which is just as well as we are deep in the muck when it comes to political and financial affairs. It flashes back and forth in time from when he is President to his days as a rootless young man who is unsure of what he wants to do with his life other than party and get drunk. The movie does have the feel of a comedy, but it gets more serious in other moments. The tone Stone sets here is not always clear, and it does take away from the movie a bit. Still. it kept me engrossed as it covered the life of a man I can’t wait to see leave the White House.

George W. Bush is played here by Josh Brolin, and he had a great streak last year with “Grindhouse,” “American Gangster” and of course “No Country for Old Men.” Christian Bale was originally cast in this role, but he dropped out at the last minute due to the makeup effects not working to his liking. It’s just as well because Brolin looks like a much better fit being from Texas and all. Playing Bush to a serious degree is a difficult challenge to say the least because we have long since gotten used to seeing him being lampooned on “Saturday Night Live,” and as a result, we cannot help but look at Brolin’s performance as a caricature of George W. But in the large scheme of things, Brolin manages to make the role his own, and it becomes more than a simple impersonation which was obviously not what he was going for in the first place.

In fact, Stone did a great job of casting as he got actors who don’t simply impersonate the people we know so well, but who instead embody and inhabit them. In the process, the actors force you to look at some of these personalities a bit differently than we have in the past. Getting past the preconceptions we have of people is always tough, but it is at times necessary in order for us to better understand how certain individuals, particularly those with the most power, tick.

One actor I was most impressed with here was Richard Dreyfuss who plays Vice President Dick Cheney. Dreyfuss has a great and frightening scene where, in a private conference with all the heads of state, he makes a case for attacking Iraq and Iran in order to get control over their vast oil supplies and keep dictators like Saddam Hussein from coming down on us ever again. The one moment which sent a chill down everyone’s spine is when someone asks Cheney what the exit strategy out of Iraq is, and he replies, “There is no exit strategy. We stay there forever.”

Everyone in the theater was frozen in silence as this is the one thing we keep begging future politicians to do, provide an exit strategy. Dreyfuss plays the scene not at all as a villain, but as a man who convinces the Commander in Chief of why he sees this path of action is the right one for the administration to take.

Another really good performance comes from Toby Jones (“The Mist”) who plays the master of smear campaigns, Karl Rove. Jones ends up making Rove seem both charismatic and likable, and he also subtly brings out the emotional manipulator in the man who succeeds in getting under George W.’s skin to make him the puppet he is today. I hate Rove for everything he has done, but Jones succeeds in making us admire him, begrudgingly so, for being so fiendishly clever. Rove’s powers of manipulation are ever so subtle to the point where we barely notice them, and Jones gets this across perfectly and with amazing subtlety.

As Bush Sr., James Cromwell makes us see that this particular U.S. President is fully aware of how his children are at a huge disadvantage. While he had to work hard to get to where he ended up at, his offspring had everything handed to them on a silver platter. Bush Sr. obviously wants the best for his children, but in seeing to his black sheep of a son’s needs and troubles, he comes to see he has done more harm than good.

As the movie goes on, Cromwell goes from presenting the elder Bush as being terribly disappointed in George W. to being deeply concerned over his son’s decisions about Iraq. We see Bush Sr. the end of the first Gulf War discussing his reasoning as to why they shouldn’t go after Saddam as it might make the dictator a hero in the eyes of many. Indeed, Stone makes us sympathize with the senior Bush in ways I never expected to. The moment where we see Bush lose the Presidential election to Bill Clinton, I actually found myself saddened as it comes across how there were many opportunities which would never be realized. This was shocking to me because I really wanted to see Clinton beat Bush, and I was thrilled he did.

In the end, however, the movie really belongs to Brolin who gives us a George W. Bush that is seemingly well intentioned and yet hopelessly naïve. You may not completely blame him for all the troubles going on in the world right now, but you can never excuse him for not taking more responsibility for his actions. We see Bush embrace God and become a born-again Christian, and while this helps him with his drinking problem, it also gives him blind faith which will prove to be his flaw as a person which will eventually undo him. Brolin makes Bush goofy yet well intentioned, and he makes clear the heartache he feels as he cannot escape the shadow of his famous father.

Stone’s “W.” is not the classic political movie “JFK” was, but it is effectively made and shows how we need to understand the human side of those we brand as criminals in order to get at what makes them act the way they do. This is an important lesson to remember as we go on in life.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

History Repeats Itself to a Depressing Extent in ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’

Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom movie poster

Remember the scene in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” where John Hammond told Ian Malcolm they were not going to make the same mistakes, and Malcolm quickly replied they were going to be making new ones? Well, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” doesn’t make new mistakes and instead repeats the old ones as the humans once again try to save the once extinct species in way we have all seen before. Yes, the visual effects are fantastic, but everything else feels astonishingly banal as nothing new is brought to the franchise. As for the storyline, it simply shows history repeating itself, something we see happen in the real world more often than not.

Three years have passed since the events of “Jurassic World,” and the theme park has been left in ruins. Now an active volcano threatens to destroy what’s left of the dinosaurs, and those in the government debate whether it is worth the trouble to save the species from becoming extinct again. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) argues it would be best for the volcano to destroy the dinosaurs as he sees this as nature’s way of correcting the mistake Hammond made in cloning them years ago. Meanwhile, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) has formed the Dinosaur Protection Group in an effort to save them. When the U.S. senators do not come through for her, she finds a savior in Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), Hammond’s partner in developing the technology to clone dinosaurs, who is intent on moving the dinosaurs to an island where they will have zero interaction with humans. Of course, this also means she will have to acquire the services of her ex-boyfriend, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), in the effort to rescue them.

Okay, the “Jurassic” movies have never been heavy on complex characters as the attention is focused mostly on the dinosaurs. The reasoning is understandable, but I have grown weary of letting the filmmakers get away with weak characterizations which are always upstaged by the special effects. Howard and Pratt are fun to watch in anything the appear in, but their talents are wasted as their characters are relegated to the romantic will-they-or-won’t-they scenario which will all know will end with them kissing passionately as they can only fight their intense feelings of love for so long.

The screenplay by Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly proves to be “Fallen Kingdom’s” biggest stumbling block as it takes the story of “The Lost World” and follows it to the letter to where the twists and turns the story takes are not the least bit surprising. As I’m sure you have derived from the trailers, the plans to move the dinosaurs to another island are thwarted by a team of mercenaries led by Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) and Lockwood’s slimy right-hand man Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) who looks to sell the dinosaurs to the highest bidders. You would think after all these movies humans would realize they can never fully control what they have created, but when dollar signs are involved, common sense and morality always take a backseat to greed.

Actually, some characters here had interesting potential which the filmmakers really could have built on. Eli Mills, thanks in large part to Rafe Spall, wins the audience over as he does Claire when he tells her of the plan to save the dinosaurs, but he is later revealed to be a slimy bastard as he looks to profit off them instead. Spall has described Eli as being a victim of high ambitions and of allowing himself to believe he is doing the right thing. He has been entrusted with securing the financial future of the Lockwood estate, and he feels this is the only way he can do it. Still, the character eventually becomes a one-dimensional baddie whom the audience is made to hate, and it got to where I kept waiting for him to say, “Hey look at me! I’m dino-meat!”

The same goes with Gunnar Eversol who is played by Toby Jones. Gunnar is the auctioneer who sells off the dinosaurs, and Jones has compared him to a rogue arms dealer who is morally neutral about the work he is doing. This could have made for an especially fascinating character, but alas, Jones is given only so much to do here as Gunnar is designed to be an appetizer for the “Jurassic” franchise’s newest dinosaur, the Indoraptor. Considering how morally neutral Gunnar is, it would have made more sense for him to take his fate as though he saw it coming instead of screaming like he doesn’t deserve it.

B.D. Wong returns again as Dr. Henry Wu, the chief geneticist of the Jurassic theme parks. Wong plays Henry as a man whose love for science is as big as his own ego, and he is a welcome presence in this deeply flawed sequel. But like the other characters, Henry is given short-shrift to where he just ends up acting like a one-dimensional jerk.

There are some new characters added to the mix such as Dr. Zia Rodriguez, a Marine veteran and a paleo veterinarian, played by Daniella Pineda. Pineda makes Zia into a quirky presence throughout, but the character feels half-realized never fully human. As for Justice Smith, his character of hacker and systems analyst Franklin Webb is this sequel’s most annoying as runs all over the place screaming as if we couldn’t already tell how unprepared he is to be around dinosaurs. I kept wanting to slap Franklin in the face and tell him to grow a pair as his whining made this sequel even more frustrating than it already was.

It is great to see Jeff Goldblum back as Ian Malcolm, one of the most popular and fascinating characters in the “Jurassic” franchise, but his appearance here is a mere cameo as he serves to bookend “Fallen Kingdom.” This is a real shame as the speeches he gives offers us a glimpse at what this sequel could have been: a look at humankind’s abuse of various powers, and at the possibility of if and how humanity and dinosaurs can co-exist. As he makes clear how Jurassic World is no longer the name of a theme park, but of the times humanity now lives in, we are reminded of the opportunities this sequel lost out on exploring.

And yes, there is the little child character named Maisie Lockwood played by Isabella Sermon who constantly sees through the deceptions of the adults and manages to outwit the dinosaurs chasing her. Of course, seeing her being smarter than the adults quickly becomes exasperating, and that’s even though this kind of character serves to remind adults of why they need to listen to children more often. Remember the child from Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits” who told his parents “don’t touch it, it’s evil” and they did anyway? Well, you get the picture.

I couldn’t help but walk into “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” with high expectations as it was directed by J.A. Bayona, the Spanish film director who gave us “The Orphanage,” “The Impossible” and “A Monster Calls.” “The Impossible” had an especially profound impact on me as he depicted the devastation of 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in a way to where I felt I experienced and survived it along with the characters. I guess I was hoping he would bring that same cinematic power to this long-running franchise, but his efforts do little to improve this sequel’s poor story and screenplay.

For what it’s worth, Bayona does give us some memorable moments. The scene where the characters observe one of the vegan dinosaurs crying out to be rescued as the volcano lays waste to Isla Nublar is truly heartbreaking, and the moment where the Indoraptor stalks the helpless Maisie in a sequence which evokes “Nosferatu” as the dinosaur stretches his creepy claws out is wonderfully chilling. I also loved how Bayona started this movie off in near silence as it opens in an underwater environment. It is times like this where I am reminded of how silence is golden, and I was hoping he would use it to his advantage. But as many sequels go, this one is noisy as hell and is at times undone by Michael Giacchino’s overambitious score.

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is not this franchise’s worst installment (“Jurassic Park III” still holds that honor), but it is pretty close. “Jurassic World” managed to do the impossible which was bring back much of the awe and wonder from Spielberg’s 1993 classic, but this one finds those things sorely missing to where I wondered if there was ever enough of a reason to make another sequel other than money. What we get here is the same old thing, and the results are depressing as its storyline points out how humans will keep making the same mistakes over and over again as they refuse to learn from history. It left me wondering who would be better off here, the humans or the dinosaurs. As I left the theater, I kept thinking about what Ellen Ripley said in “Aliens:”

“You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

Ripley had a really good point there, and this line was also proof of how James Cameron could come up with good dialogue when he put his mind to it.

* * out of * * * *

 

‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ Has Gary Oldman Giving One of His Best Performances

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie poster

It’s interesting how the spy world in John le Carré’s novels differs sharply from the one in Ian Fleming’s. Whereas James Bond was a dashing playboy of a spy and the good and bad guys were easy to tell apart, the spies in Carré’s world exist in a morally gray area, and their lives prove to be anything but glamorous. No one is innocent, and everyone has something to hide from others or perhaps even themselves. Here, there are no gunfights or explosions but instead conflicts both internal and external. Even the people we look up to in Carré’s novels are deeply flawed, and you can quickly see why no one can truly trust one another.

No book in Carré’s vast library of work exemplifies this more than “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” which features his most famous fictional character, George Smiley. Originally turned into a brilliant BBC miniseries back in 1979 with Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley, it has now been made into a motion picture with Gary Oldman in the lead role. Whereas the miniseries had more time to develop the story and characters, this movie does an excellent job of doing the same in a shorter span of time. Granted, much has been left out from the novel, but those unfamiliar with the miniseries are unlikely to notice.

The movie hovers around the goings on in The Circus, the codename for British Intelligence. After one operation goes wrong and an agent is killed, the head of Intelligence, Control (John Hurt), is forced to resign along with his right-hand man, Smiley. Smiley, however, is brought back into service when it becomes apparent there is a mole in British Intelligence. Moreover, it’s a mole which has been in The Circus for a long time, and he is a senior member with access to all sorts of secret information. Smiley, in his own way, seeks out the mole before the British become completely compromised in world affairs, and what results is a game of chess more than a battle of wits.

Casting Oldman as George Smiley at first seems like a surprising choice. Oldman made his film debut as Sid Vicious in “Sid & Nancy,” and his performance as the doomed punk rocker reminds us of how over the top he can be as an actor, and I always looked forward to seeing him play the villain in movies like “The Professional” and “Air Force One.” We revel in his emotionally unhinged performances which have made him stand out prominently among other actors of his ilk, and he has rarely, if ever, let us down.

As Smiley, however, Oldman is forced to dial back on the manic energy he became famous for. George Smiley is a character who never loses his cool and conveys so much even through the simplest of gestures. With even an ever so slight movement, we can see Smiley’s thought process at work and are never in doubt of how powerful a character he is. Each movement Oldman takes as Smiley is one which has been deliberately thought out, and even he knows he doesn’t have to bounce off the wall as this famous spy because this one goes into the room knowing all he needs to know.

In recent years, Oldman has gotten to stretch a bit with roles like Sirius Black in the “Harry Potter” movie franchise. While Black is first seen as a bad guy, it turns out he is a good one who cares deeply about Harry’s well-being. Then there is his role as James Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies where he makes the good guy seem very cool without being such a square. What makes George Smiley an especially interesting character is he is neither a good or bad guy, but instead someone who is forced to navigate the dirty waters which he cannot help but get submerged in from time to time.

This is one of those roles which drive most actors crazy because it can become ever so easy to become utterly self-conscious about every single scene they are in. Being an actor myself, I often wonder if I am doing enough or perhaps too much in one performance to the next. While acting on the stage makes this easier to answer, acting in a movie or television is not only different but far more intimate. In the latter, you have to be more natural to where the camera never catches you emoting, and this can be difficult to say the least. But it’s those subtleties which can provide amazing results with the right director watching over you.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” also has a cast of brilliant British actors like John Hurt, Colin Firth, and Toby Jones, all of whom do their best in playing characters who have long since accepted the fact that they are morally compromised. You also have Tom Hardy, who succeeded in doing so much with just his eyes as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” as a British agent who is only beginning to become morally compromised. None of these intelligence officers are easy to decipher on the surface, and a lot of this is thanks to their excellent performances.

Directing this adaptation is Tomas Alfredson who directed the great film “Let the Right One In.” Alfredson handles the intricacies of a story which could easily have become convoluted in terrific fashion, and he keeps us enthralled throughout. Even if we can’t follow the story, he succeeds in keeping us on the edge of our seat all the way to the end. Furthermore, he generates an intense and exciting climax without the use of gunplay or explosions, and there is something to be said about that.

Describing all which goes on in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is not easy, but it is not an impossible story to follow. Watching this movie for a second time will help give you a chance to examine the subplots more closely. While the spy world of Carré may seem nowhere as exciting as the one Fleming created for 007, it deals with the real world more directly as the line between right and wrong is forever blurred. What’s fascinating is how these people survive in it even as they continue losing pieces of themselves in a world and time which is prepared to beat them down on a regular basis. Everyone involved deserves a lot of credit for making what might seem ordinary and unglamorous seem so relentlessly thrilling.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Anthropoid

Anthropoid poster

Anthropoid” is kind of like a cousin to “Valkyrie,” another movie about soldiers looking to take out a high ranking Nazi. Like “Valkyrie,” it will not go down as one of the most memorable World War II movies ever made, but it is an entertaining film which engages us with noble characters, interesting questions about the price of war and a furious climax where resistance fighters make their last stand. More importantly, it deals with a true life event (yes, it is “based on a true story”) many probably don’t know about but should.

The movie starts in 1941 with two Czechoslovak exile soldiers, Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan), parachuting into their occupied homeland. Upon meeting the resistance fighters and their leader, “Uncle” Jan Zelenka-Hajský (Toby Jones), in Prague, they reveal that they are here to execute Operation Anthropoid which involves the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, a high ranking Nazi who was one of the architects of the Holocaust and whom Adolf Hitler described as “the man with the iron heart.” Do they succeed in their mission? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

“Anthropoid” gets off to a bit of a slow start as Jozef and Jan try to settle in and not stand out among everyone else in town. They even recruit two lovely ladies, Marie Kovárníkovasá (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka Fafková (Anna Geislerová), to help them carry out their mission, and they are more than willing to help. Just watch as Lenka makes clear to the men how she can handle a gun.

There’s a subplot where Jan ends up getting engaged to Marie, and it just comes out of nowhere to where this section feels rather awkward. A number of characters are not developed fully enough to where “Anthropoid” threatens to feel like a missed opportunity. But what elevates the material are the performances which are very strong.

You can never go wrong with Cillian Murphy as he has yet to give a bad performance in any film he appears in. As Jozef, Murphy’s steely eyes stare into others with an intensity which wipes the smiles off their faces as he makes clear this is no ordinary mission. He also makes Jozef a most determined soldier who is infinitely determined to carry out this operation, but even he can only take so much before he falls apart emotionally.

Jamie Dornan shows more life here than he ever could have in the dreadful “Fifty Shades of Grey.” This is especially the case when his character suffers a brutal panic attack which has Jozef desperately trying to calm him down from. It’s way too easy to look like a fool when portraying such an emotional moment as the camera never lies, and it says a lot about Dornan that he was able to make this panic attack such a genuinely anxiety ridden moment.

There are also a number of other terrific performances to be found in “Anthropoid” like the one from Toby Jones. Then again, seeing him in a World War II movie these days instantly reminds us of his “Hail Hydra” character from the “Captain America” movies.

“Anthropoid” really kicks into high gear when an assassination attempt is taken and the Nazis come down hard on a particular group of people to where sympathy isn’t much of an option. It gets to where everyone wonders if killing one Nazi will have any effect on the war. With the world closing in on the main characters, the intensity keeps building and building all the way to the very end.

The last half of “Anthropoid” has the protagonists holing up in a church, and they are discovered by the Nazis to where a violent standoff ensues. Director Sean Ellis, who helmed the Oscar nominated short film “Cashback,” stages an impressive standoff which has us completely riveted. While the first half feels routine, the last half really does keep us on the edge of our seats. With “Valkyrie” we had a very good idea of things would turn out, but with “Anthropoid” we don’t. Bullets fly all over the place and emotions are shattered to where we can’t look away, and this is aided by a pounding music score composed by Guy Farley and Robin Foster.

Parts of “Anthropoid” may not stay in the conscious mind long after you have seen it, but the parts which do make it worth the price of admission. Many made tremendous sacrifices which can no longer be swept under the rug, and this movie gives those soldiers the respect they have deserved for the longest time. It also looks at the many costs of war and of how soldiers can only keep their cool for so long until they break under the pressure. It’s a bleak movie in many ways, but it also shows just how far the resistance fighters were determined to end Hitler’s genocidal reign.

* * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.