Film review: Vice

Director: Adam McKay Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry

The office of US Vice President was for a long time commonly overlooked. The position was deemed “not worth a pitcher of warm spit” by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Vice President, John Nance Garner while as Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) points out here, the job is essentially based around the principle of doing nothing other than waiting for the president to die.

Dick Cheney was a different sort of Vice President, however. Whereas some leaders, such as the late George H.W. Bush have been fully aware of the potential opportunities afforded by the position, (Bush had, after all, spent two terms as Veep himself) and have thus deliberately picked non-threatening buffoons like Dan Quayle as their Number 2, Bush’s own son (played here by Sam Rockwell) recognised he was hopelessly out of his depth and thus when his turn came in 2000, delegated unprecedented power to an older man, much more experienced than himself. Cheney seized this opportunity head-on and exploited it to the full.

Richard Dreyfuss has already played Cheney in Oliver Stone’s W (2008). Now Adam McKay – a director once known for comedies such as the rather good Anchorman and the rather less good Talladega Nights and Anchorman 2, turns his focus onto the last US Vice President but one.

We first meet Cheney (Bale) at a low point. As a drunken hell-raiser in the 1960s, he is encouraged out of his decline only by the words of his strong-willed wife Lynne (Amy Adams, excellent). We then cut to the extremely dramatic aftermath of the September 11th attacks of 2001. Whisked away to a “secure location”, the Vice President turns this terrible occurrence into a golden opportunity for him and his ilk. Using the new atmosphere to test the limits of his power to the limit, Cheney, aided and abetted by the conservative cheerleaders of Fox News conspire to make war against Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with the attacks whatsoever.

Gruff and lacking in charisma, the real Cheney, 78 in 2019, has never been an obvious candidate for dramatic portrayal. Despite this and the fact he bears no real physical resemblance to the man himself, Christian Bale aided by prosthetics which increasingly make him resemble a modern-day Chevy Chase as he ages from his twenties to his seventies, is brilliant as the heart-attack prone Cheney. As with Sir Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), it has taken a Welsh actor to most perfectly capture a pillar of modern American conservatism.

Steve Carell, who in McKay’s Anchorman played the idiotic weatherman Brick Tamland, (a man who we were told later “served in a senior role in the Bush administration”) is also great here as Bush’s defence secretary and Cheney’s long-time friend and rival, Donald Rumsfeld (he of the “known unknowns).

As in The Big Short which explained the reasons for the last recession in easy language, McKay deploys numerous clever tactics here – a scene performed in iambic pentameter, a false ending, a mystery narrator. Some of these work better than others: a sequence in which Alfred Molina’s waiter offers Bush’s cronies a “menu” of legal options in a restaurant, for example, just seems weird.

But, overall, this is a compelling, well-acted insight into the banality of evil.

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Book review: 1918: How The First World War Was Won, by Julian Thompson

Book review: 1918: How The First World War Was Won, by Julian Thompson. Published by: Carlton Books.

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A century ago, the guns fell silent after four years of the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen. It is a conflict often described as futile with countless lives lost in skirmishes over very trivial areas of land, it is worth remembering that this was a war won as a result of military strategy as well as a war of attrition.

In fact, as late as 1918, after the humiliating capitulation of Bolshevik Russia at Brest-Litovsk, the war still looked like it could go pretty much either way.

Major General Julian Thompson’s book is produced in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum and is packed with detailed maps and relevant illustrations. It is a thorough and comprehensive account of the final year of the First World War.

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Book review: Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore

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In 1978, Alan Moore decided to quit the job at the Northampton gas board and dedicate himself full time to breaking into the comics industry as a writer. It was a high risk strategy. He was twenty-four years old and his young wife was pregnant. But Moore saw it as his last chance to exchange a job he hated for a career he loved.

Success came slowly with occasional one-off stories (Tharg’s Futureshocks) in the new science fiction comic 2000AD. Later, came Skizz, D.R. and Quinch and my own personal favourite, The Ballad of Halo Jones. More success came through the short lived and inappropriately titled Warrior comic (it was not war-related at all). Moore provided the backbone to the comic between 1982 and 1985, most famously with V For Vendetta, set in a late 1990s futuristic fascist dystopia. He also wrote Marvelman, now known as Miracleman, a promising superhero strip derailed by a legal dispute with Marvel Comics. This proved an forerunner to his greatest success, DC’s The Watchmen.

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Today, Alan Moore is still in Northampton, in his sixties and is renowned as one of the most successful comic writers ever albeit one with a bit of reputation for disputes with his employers or prospective filmmakers attempting to adapt his works (Moore has famously never seen any of the four films directly based on his own comics).

His fascinating story is detailed thoroughly by the always excellent Lance Parkin in this comprehensive biography.

Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore by Lance Parkin, published by Aurum Press (2013)

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Book Review: Gilliamesque by Terry Gilliam

For more on Terry Gilliam, see my feature The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam in issue 14 of Geeky Monkey magazine.

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Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir by Terry Gilliam, published by Canongate, 2016

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Terry Gilliam has always stood out from the crowd.

Even when in Monty Python, he stood out somewhat as the one American. Slightly odd looking, he mostly remained off screen at first, producing instead the celebrated animated sequences (for example, during the series’ opening titles) for which he became famous. Nearly fifty years on, this book, his memoir is illustrated throughout in a similarly unique style.

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Like many people called Terry (Terry Pratchett, Terry Brooks, fellow Python Terry Jones, er, Terry Scott?). Gilliam found himself drawn to the fantasy genre. His directing career began awkwardly with Gilliam co-directing Python ventures with Terry Jones. Although mostly good films in the end, they were tough shoots with Jones and Gilliam gently wrestling for overall control and the likes of Cleese and Palin losing patience with the American who they felt treated them like they were bits of animated card.

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Gilliam really came into his own in the first half of the Eighties with brilliantly imaginative fantasies like Time Bandits and Brazil. He’s had many fine moments since – notably The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys and has undeniably developed a unique visual style. Despite this, he has never developed a reputation for being a safe pair of hands, largely due to high profile flops like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and The Adventures of Don Quixote which never even completed filming.

Though he sometimes adopts an overly defensive tone when discussing his own films, Gilliam makes for an engaging likeable narrator on his own life. The world of cinema would certainly have been poorer without him.

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Book review: American Maelstrom

1968:  Senator Robert Kennedy speaking at an election rally.  (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)

1968: Senator Robert Kennedy speaking at an election rally. (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)

1968 was a US presidential election year like no other, more violent, traumatic and divisive than any before or since.
The previous election in 1964 had seen President Lyndon B. Johnson defeat his rather alarming opponent Senator Barry Goldwater by a record margin. But this already seemed like a distant memory by the start of 1968, as the United States was reeling from a dramatic breakdown in law and order and mounting division over the increasingly bloody quagmire in Vietnam. LBJ seemed exhausted, his ambitious and admirable Great Society programme sidelined forever by the escalating war,
Despite this, the president (who was eligible for one more term, having served the fourteen remaining months of the assassinated John F. Kennedy’s remaining term, plus one of his own) was still generally expected to win.
But shock followed shock in 1968. First, the US suffered a major setback in Vietnam as the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. Then, the little known senator Eugene McCarthy scored an impressive 41% in the New Hampshire primary: not a win but a major shock to the White House. This prompted Johnson’s hated rival Bobby Kennedy to enter the race. Like McCarthy, he ran on an anti-war ticket.
At this point, Johnson astonished the world by announcing his withdraw from the race declaring: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” in a televised address in March. Concerns that he might suffer another heart attack were a factor, something he confided to his Vice President Hubert Humphrey who effectively ran in his stead. He did indeed die following a heart attack on January 22nd 1973. Had he won and served another full term, his presidency would have ended just two days before.

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Michael A. Cohen’s book is especially effective in its portrayal of the hugely diverse range of characters who ran for president in 1968. President Johnson: a man so crude he would sometimes take his own “Johnson” out during meetings. Bobby Kennedy is also demystified. Tragic as his assassination was, Cohen dispels the myth that his victory would have been inevitable had he lived. In fact, he may well not have even won the Democratic Party nomination. McCarthy: an often irritating candidate who lost all heart in the 1968 contest following RFK’s death. George Wallace, the racist demagogue running as an independent. And Humphrey, the eventual Democratic nominee after a disastrous Chicago convention marred by the brutal police suppression of anti-war protests outside. Despite a terrible campaign, “Humph” came surprisingly close to winning.

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But he was narrowly beaten by Richard Nixon, ultimately a disastrous choice for presidency. Nixon had already seen off challenges from political newcomer Ronald Reagan and George Romney, (the father of Mitt Romney who was beaten by Obama in 2012). Romney Senior’s campaign was scarcely less inept than his son’s. Witnesses have described it as “like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”
There is no happy ending here. Nixon won after sabotaging Johnson’s attempts to secure peace in Vietnam before the election, despite publicly expressing support for them. Everything shifted to the Right. Nothing was ever the same again.

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Book review: American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division by Michael A Cohen. Published by: Oxford University Press.

Blu-ray review: Carol

Cate Blanchett plays Carol, a middle-aged, middle-class American housewife who in the middle of the twentieth century finds herself in the middle of a messy marital breakdown slap bang in the middle of the festive season. Indeed, Carol is in the throes of her Christmas shopping, when she runs into Therese (Mara), a young assistant in a department store. From the outset, it is clear the two have a strong mutual interest in each other, one which extends way beyond the specifications of the model railway set Carol is purchasing for her young daughter. Even today, with different social mores and the existence of mobile phones, such a relationship would encounter a number of obstacles along the way. It is, of course, even more difficult in 1952.

Director Todd Haynes has already demonstrated his faculty for recapturing the feel of the Douglas Sirk films of the 1950s, in 2002’s Far From Heaven. Here the brilliant performances by the two leads brilliantly bring Patricia Highsmith’s little known novel, The Price Of Salt. This is much slower paced than the more thriller-orientated Highsmith adaptations Strangers On A Train, The Talented Mr Ripley (which also featured Blanchett) and The Two Faces Of January but is all the better for it.

Special Features:

Interviews

Behind the Scenes featurette

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy
Directed By: Todd Haynes
Running Time: 118 mins

Studio Canal

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DVD review: Inside No 9 Series 2

The premise behind Inside No. 9 is so thin that it barely amounts to a premise at all. Every story occurs inside a different “No.9” usually a house number although sometimes something else, for example, as in the first of this series, a railway carriage. That’s it. But from this, writers and performers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have found the perfect vehicle for their brilliantly judged macabre humour.

Anyone who has ever fancied travelling on a sleeper carriage may well be put off the idea forever by ‘La Couchette’. This first episode sees Shearsmith’s doctor increasingly disturbed by first, a flatulent drunk (Pemberton), then a noisy middle aged couple before finally a pair of randy young backpackers (Jack Whitehall and Jessica Gunning) discover something which changes the nature of the journey for everyone.

The ’12 Days of Christine’ starring Sheridan Smith is a more sober but hugely effective piece. As we see Christine’s life pass before her rapidly before our eyes  from  the night of her first meeting her future husband, through to marriage, motherhood and then divorce, an element of horror seems to be threatening to creep in. But the end, when it does come, packs an enormous emotional punch.

‘The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge’ is much funnier, sending up the real life insanity of the 17th century witch trials. Having taken only very minor performing roles in ‘The 12 Days of Christine’, Shearsmith and Pemberton return to the fore in this, the most ‘League of Gentlemen’-esque episode with veteran actor David Warner (The Exorcist, Time Bandits, Tron) also taking a role.

None of the episodes are weak although the quality perhaps does decline ever so slightly with ‘Cold Comfort’ set in the offices of a busy phone helpline and ‘Nana’s Party’ which suffers slightly from having barely any normal characters in it at all. Yet even these contain moments of excellence.

The series finale ‘Séance Time’ is brilliant, however. With some vaguely insightful behind the scenes featurettes for each episode, this is ultimately a superb series of comic anthologies. Let us hope there will be more.

Release date: May 4th 2015

Bonus features: Behind the Scenes Featurettes on Each Episode

Certificate: 15

Cast: Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Jack Whitehall, Sheridan Smith, Claire Skinner, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Alison Steadman, Jane Horrocks, David Warner

BBC Worldwide

John Smith: Twenty-five years on

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The Labour leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack, twenty-five years ago this month, on May 12th 1994. Had he lived, he would now be eighty. He would also, no doubt, be remembered a former Prime Minister, rather than an Opposition leader whose tragic premature death prevented him from getting to the top.

Smith only led the Labour Party for two years. I don’t recall much popular excitement about his election as leader in July 1992. The contest against the perfectly decent left-winger Bryan Gould (who subsequently returned to his native New Zealand) was a foregone conclusion and a dull affair.

There was also some feeling that after losing for the fourth time in a row in April 1992, Labour might never win again. After all, if Labour couldn’t win during a Tory recession when could it win? Surely the economy would have recovered by 1996 or 1997 ensuring yet another win for the Tories? Satirical show Have I Got News For You… meanwhile pointed out, Labour was electing the very man whose tax plans had arguably led to their recent defeat in the first place.

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Such fears proved misplaced. Simply by electing Smith, Labour had made an important step towards recovery. In the month of Smith’s election as leader, Labour gained a poll lead over the Tories which it would maintain for the next decade. The April 1992 election result in fact turned out to be the last Tory General Election win achieved until 2015.

John Smith is sometimes accused of laziness and complacency: of being happy to let the Tories lose the election for themselves. In fact, during the Major years, this was the perfect tactic to adopt. Within months of their victory, the Major Government virtually disintegrated amidst a sea of divisions over Europe, sleaze allegations, and perhaps worst, the total economic incompetence exhibited by Prime Minister John Major and his Chancellor Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday in September 1992. Labour had double digit poll leads from the autumn onward. Hopelessly divided and weak, torn apart by self-inflicted wounds, the Major Government never recovered.

This is not to deny John Smith any credit for Labour’s recovery. Although he did not launch any “New Labour” style revolution, he was certainly not lazy either. For one thing, he proved the finest performer as Opposition leader in the Commons of the post-war era. Only Harold Wilson in 1963-64, William Hague in 1997-2001 or perhaps Tony Blair in 1994-97 have come close to matching him. “No wonder we live in a country where the Grand National doesn’t start and hotels fall into the sea!” he derided Major in 1993 (referring to two recent news events which, of course, the hapless John Major, for once, could not really be blamed for). More seriously, he attacked “the devalued Prime Minister of a devalued government” after Black Wednesday.

Then there was the One Member One Vote reform to end the union block vote in autumn 1993. Smith privately planned to resign if the party voted “no”.  They did not, partly thanks to  a spirited Conference defence of the OMOV proposals from John Prescott. As it turned out, this would ensure Prescott would defeat Smith’s Number Two Margaret Beckett in the then entirely unforeseen Deputy Leadership contest the following year.

Ultimately, Smith’s strength was a self-assurance which both his predecessors the terminally un-telegenic Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock as well as his successors Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband all lacked. True, the party experienced a huge surge in support following Tony Blair’s election as leader and a decisive move to the right for the party. But, in retrospect, Labour was already clearly heading for victory under John Smith. Maybe not the 179 seat majority achieved by New Labour but a substantial win nevertheless. There was no need for the creation of New Labour or the campaign to win over the Murdoch press. Labour had a 20% lead over the Tories in May 1994.

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Counter-factual history is a risky business. Would the Blair-Brown rivalry have taken new form in a Smith Cabinet? Would the Tories have fared well enough in 1997 for Michael Portillo to escape the humiliating loss of his seat and thus succeed Major instead of Hague?  Would Blair, Brown, Cameron and May still have become Prime Minister anyway? Would the Good Friday Agreement have still happened? The 2001 and 2005 Labour victories? Devolution? Kosovo? Afghanistan? Iraq? Brexit?

We will, of course, never know these things. While I would not wish to romanticise Smith’s leadership (every Labour leader before or since has, after all, been accused of “betraying socialism”. Smith, unfairly or not, would doubtless been accused of this just the same, had he lived) there seems little doubt that John Smith would have led Britain into the 21st century had he survived.

His death remains a great tragedy. The question of what a Smith-led Britain would have turned out like remains a fascinating mystery, twenty-five years on.

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