‘Vice’: an overwhelming satire

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“Vice” (2018) is, at the end of the day, a damning portrait of former Vice President Dick Cheney. It is also a bit of a documentary, a bit of educational entertainment, a bit of a comedy and a lot of finger-wagging. 

Some of director Adam McKay’s non-traditional concepts work. Many of them don’t. 

Don’t get me wrong, I would prefer “Vice” to about any hum-drum historical biopic that would warrant multiple looks down at my nonexistent watch. McKay has a vibrant, particularly meta style of satire (at least in “The Big Short” and “Vice”) that makes important, but potentially dull historical material more interesting.

But at the end of the day, “The Big Short” told a coherent and effective story. “Vice” leaves me with a somewhat perplexing stew of thoughts on its subject matter. The film is heavily condemning (at times almost fatiguing) but also reveals a more tender, family-driven and loving side to the character as well. Cheney as a character is well rounded, but his motivation is a bit cloudy (perhaps that’s the point).

“Vice” is humorous throughout, with the non-traditional storytelling often being the joke itself. The film is narrated by a character that is revealed at the end, and this narrator interjects with overwhelming consistency. The problem with the constant explanation is that it undercuts the drama at times, and throws the tempo out of whack. Though the narration gets tiring, a solid-as-always performance from Jesse Plemons helps it out. 

The film is flawlessly cast, from the transformative performances of Christian Bale and Amy Adams to Steve Carrell’s rather hilarious portrayal of Donald Rumsfeld.

I was not a big fan of “Vice,” but it was an interesting experience, especially for the politically interested. 

Status: Recommend for Fans (poltics, big Oscary prosthetic performances, history). 

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

‘The Favourite’: Lanthimos takes on the throne

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“The Favourite” is twisted, satirical and crass — and damn, is it delightful. 

Featuring knockout performances from its three leads, “The Favourite” is a biting satirical comedy/drama that benefits greatly from the eerie flourishes of its director, Yorgos Lanthimos.

The film might be Lanthimos’ most straight-forward yet, but his fish-eye lens shots and sarcastic tendencies give the film the injection of eccentricity that it needs. 

The film centers around a frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her ambitious and at times domineering assistant Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), as a new employee Abigail (Emma Stone) begins to climb the ranks of the queen’s favor, engaging a competition with Lady Sarah for power and security. 

The main shooting location, The Hatfield House, is regal and stunning. The gorgeous high ceilings are captured with the lower camera angles, as the height and extravagance of the place towers above the characters’ heads. 

The tit-for-tat battle between the Abigail and Sarah is made hilarious by the vicious and cunning performances of Stone and Weisz. As the two lock into a showdown that takes some dark turns, Colman delivers one of the year’s best performances in her comical but tortured portrayal of Queen Anne.

True colors are revealed and permanent paths are forged in a manner only Lanthimos could execute. This film is an absolute blast. 

Status: Strongly Recommend

Drawing by William C Hensley

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’: wild, weird and wonderful

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

If five years ago, someone would have approached me and said “you know, in 2018 there will be an animated Spider-Man film — released at the same time as a successful live-action franchise featuring the hero — that will include multiple Spider men, girls and a ham,” I would have called that person insane. 

But, yet, here we are. And we’re quite lucky for it. 

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a chaotic, colorful foray into a world of multiple Spider-beings, displaying some of the most impressive animation in recent memory. The technology at play is, at times, truly jaw-dropping, offering a dimension and texture to Spidey’s web slinging that has not been seen before (there is a reason Sony is currently seeking patents for the tech). 

The film sets its sights on Miles Morales, a high-schooler living in Brooklyn with his family and attending a specialized prep school. He is — you guessed it — bitten by a radioactive spider, giving him the ability to awkwardly walk on walls with sticky hands and gnarly senses. But soon, he realizes that because of an inter-dimensional portal, he is not the only Spider-Man in his orbit, not by a long shot.

A blend of hand-drawn comic-book images and computer animation gives the action a unique sort of electricity, like its jumping off the screen. According to Wikipedia (only the best sources for this journalist): around 140 animators were used for this project, the largest of any Sony Pictures Animation film.

Aside from the incredible animation at work, this film is hilarious, drawing the best from the powers of Lord and Miller, and an exciting cast of voice performers. The film navigates the inter-dimensional madness with elements of slapstick humor, meta-commentary and heartfelt drama. While sometimes the humorous and dramatic notes are sporadically mingled, the film’s inherent weirdness seems to give it a pass to do so. Or perhaps it was just so funny, I didn’t care. 

Shameik Moore delivers a terrific performance as Miles, while Jake Johnson plays perhaps the most compelling Peter Parker ever. Spider-Ham (voiced by John Mulaney) is a straight-up loony toon running amok and Nicolas Cage’s Spider-Man Noir  is a dark, black-and-white figure who brags about beating up Nazis.

The film is an absolute oddity, and a refreshing step in the world of comic-book adaptations. One can only hope it will be successful, and will cause studios to lean a little less formulaic and a little more risky. The gamble paid off with this film. 

Status: Strongly Recommend

Drawing by William C Hensley

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’: spurs, saddles and death

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (2018) offers six explorations of mortality in the format of separate vignettes, allowing directors Joel and Ethan Coen to explore many sides of the same die (no pun intended). 

During these stories set in the Old West (post-Civil War),  a very characteristic through-line of dark humor, dire circumstances and general melancholy is executed with the film-making mastery that the Coen name now implies.

Beginning with a story featuring the jovial, singing, mass-murdering cowboy Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), the film carries on to an incompetent bankrobber (James Franco) and his struggles with the law, a bleak arrangement between a physically disabled performer (Harry Melling) and a traveling showman (Liam Neeson), a prospector (Tom Waits) and his search for a pocket of gold, a young woman  (Zoe Kazan) and man (Bill Heck) searching for a new life in Oregon, and a small group of citizens on a carriage ride to the unknown. 

The Coens navigate the sweeping landscapes of the Old West stunningly in their second collaboration with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. From capturing the vastness of the open prairie to the sun-glazed beauty of a small clearing in a forest, the stories unfold over the many terrains of the place and time. 

While nihilism seems to be at the heart of the film, much of it is executed with a twinkle in the eye. Like many of the past Coens’ works, the film sometimes chuckles at the meaninglessness of it all, while sometimes just letting it crawl up your skin and live with you.  But in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” instead of marinating over it while the credits roll, you’re on to the next short. 

And when the credits do roll, the distractions end, you’re left contemplating all six stories at once.

The film wades into romance territory — not a common Coen trait — with “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” In the short, a romance blossoms with a foundation of practicality and mutual benefit, doomed to the whirlwind of needless tragedy that life on earth so frequently throws at us (as do the Coens). 

The performances throughout are powerful. Tim Blake Nelson’s cartoonish portrayal in the opening “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” provides a mostly comical introduction to a film that travels to very dark places. 

Melling delivers the most heartbreaking performance in “Meal Ticket,” conveying a confident and poetic voice during his performances, but displaying the most meaning offstage with just his expressive, longing eyes.

Tom Waits is gold (again, no pun) in “All Gold Canyon,” which is the most pleasant of the vignettes.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is currently streaming on Netflix.  Give it a go.

Status: Recommend

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

Drawing by William C. Hensley


‘Creed II’ Diversifies

Brandon, Will and Jared (with appearances from Jackie) discuss and pitch a sequel for Steven Caple Jr.’s “Creed II” in Ep. 3 of the Film Diversifies podcast. The group also discusses their AFI Film of the Week “Rocky,” Brandon’s recent rewatch of the Harry Potter series, Will’s movie ambitions for the graphic novels “New Frontier” and “Chrononots,” the passing of industry legend William Goldman and the recent live-action “Lion King” teaser trailer. This podcast was produced by Jackie Goff, featuring music from Doqtr Shine. It contains some expletive language. 

‘Creed II’ pairs familiar with fresh

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“Creed 2” (2018) might feel formulaic to fans of the “Rocky”/”Creed” universe, but the formula is effective, and the film’s focus on its powerhouse characters makes it a dynamic entry in the series. 

The follow-up to Ryan Coogler’s 2015 film, “Creed 2” picks back up with Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), a light heavyweight fighter, as he grapples with the challenge of a fight from Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed his father in the ring. 

Directed by newcomer Steven Caple Jr., with a screenplay by Sylvester Stallone, the film probably has more in common with “Rocky II” than any of the other sequels, despite the obvious connection to “Rocky IV” (that being Ivan Drago). Though many of the through lines are familiar, the story of Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) established in “Creed” continues, and these characters give the new series an entire life of its own. 

Caple does a good job of balancing the elements, and making the film derivative but also giving it new life. The past films are primarily stories about families and relationships that just happen to involve boxers. Caple carries that torch in “Creed II.”

The grounding performance of Thompson cannot be understated in this film.  While “Creed 2” certainly turns up the volume and heightens the reality more than the first, Thompson’s portrayal of Bianca keeps the series surprisingly down to earth, balancing out some of the added antics.  Her and Jordan’s chemistry is what gives these films their own identity and purpose. 

Jordan is brilliant as Adonis, but that should hardly be surprising at this point. He’s become one of the most talented superstars currently working.

Appearing in his eighth film in the “Rocky” universe, Stallone once again makes it known that Rocky Balboa is one of the most compelling characters on the screen in the last 50 years. Rocky’s simple wisdom — attained from the baggage we’ve seen unfold right before our eyes since 1976 — makes his relationship with Adonis one of the most rewarding elements of these new films. 

The fight scenes are a step down from Coogler’s 2015 film, but still inspire a stand-up-in-your-seat energy, and the sound design in these fights is once again top-notch. This film features some interesting coaching moments from Rocky and Drago (advising from opposite corners) that unfold during the climax. Though the larger plot points are largely predictable, the ending of the film throws in a rather poetic character moment that I was not expecting. 

If you like the “Rocky” series and “Creed,” you will probably enjoy “Creed 2.”

Status: Recommend for Fans (the “Rocky” series, “Creed,” Sports Movies).

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

Drawing by William C. Hensley

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