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From ‘Vice’ to ‘Don’t Look Up’: The Self-Defeating Pessimism of Adam McKay’s Movies

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From ‘Vice’ to ‘Don’t Look Up’: The Self-Defeating Pessimism of Adam McKay’s Movies

In 1980, leftist historian Howard Zinn published the first edition of A People’s History of the United States, issued as a corrective against the reverent visions of American history offered by his contemporaries. Zinn’s America was not a land of freedom or opportunity, but a land of greed and inequality from its inception. It was colonized by brutal despots, designed to serve the interests of wealthy slave-owners, and allowed the rich to do more or less as they pleased to the poor. It’s hard to overstate the impact of A People’s History: it became one of the most popular history books ever written, paving the way for a more critical view of American history to reach the mainstream.

But A People’s History has also been subject to persistent criticism, and not just from right-wing pearl clutchers. Even fellow leftist historians took issue with Zinn’s bleak, pessimistic worldview, which reduced the entirety of American history to one great lopsided class war. To Zinn, every major event was engineered–or capitalized upon–by the wealthy elite for their own purposes. The Civil War was just a con job to distract the poor, and the New Deal provided the working class with little more than table scraps. These wealthy elites were manipulative, brutal, and invariably successful. Every rebellion was crushed, every challenge was thwarted, and every victory for the people was erased or watered down into uselessness. To Zinn, American history was one long Road Runner cartoon: the rich kept painting tunnels on the sides of mountains, and the poor kept running into them again and again.

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The recent work of Adam McKay, like A People’s History, is intended at least in part to educate. At times, The Big Short and Vice feel like postmodern, R-rated episodes of Schoolhouse Rock!, breaking down the causes of the Great Recession and the destructive legacy of Dick Cheney in ways general audiences can digest. And while Don’t Look Up isn’t directly about the climate crisis, it uses its central allegory as a strident alarm bell, warning viewers about the dangers of complacency. But what hampers McKay’s movies, more than their much-discussed lack of subtlety, is their fundamental, Zinn-esque pessimism: a pessimism which, unlike A People’s History, compromises their educational effectiveness.

RELATED: ‘Dont’ Look Up’ Director Adam McKay to Produce Narrative Feature About January 6 Capitol Attacks


The dynamics in McKay’s movies fall along Zinn’s fault lines. The villains are rich, powerful, and utterly self-interested, like The Big Short’s smarmy finance bro Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) or Don’t Look Up’s cynical president Janine Orlean (Meryl Streep). They are callous opportunists with no principles of their own outside maintaining power. In Vice, Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) decides to be a Republican more or less on a whim when he gets to Washington, and his boss Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) quite literally laughs in his face when Cheney asks him what he “believes.” (The real Cheney had conservative beliefs well before Washington.)

The heroes, such as they are, have less power and influence than the villains. The two most sympathetic characters in The Big Short, Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), are the most powerful of McKay’s heroes, but even they can only do so much in the face of giant banks and investment firms. (Accordingly, they’re also the least heroic, profiting off of the housing bubble collapse.) The closest thing Vice has to a hero is Kurt (Jesse Plemons), a blue-collar man who narrates the film and is eventually revealed to be the donor for Dick Cheney’s heart transplant. And in Don’t Look Up, Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) are two obscure scientists warning of an apocalyptic comet strike, going up against the combined might of the government, tech billionaires, and the whole media complex.

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They fail, of course. Good always fails in these movies. Big banks suffer only minor consequences for the financial crisis compared to the 99 percent, and go right back to business as usual. Dick Cheney gets everything he wants, and doesn’t regret any of his morally heinous actions. The comet hits Earth and will eventually kill off all life, and the wealthy elite venture off into space to colonize another planet. (A mid-credits scene reveals that those elites are themselves doomed to die, resulting in both the total extinction of humanity and the happiest ending of these three movies.)

This pessimistic worldview is not a problem in and of itself. After all, The Big Short and Vice were based on true events (the former more than the latter), and Don’t Look Up’s allegory, already quite flimsy, would fall apart entirely if the comet didn’t crash into Earth. And if McKay really does want these movies to serve a higher purpose, pessimism isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw. A People’s History, for all its cynicism, had a real effect on the way history is taught and understood today. It wasn’t the first history book to present such a critical view of America, but it was (and remains) the most popular, and it had a galvanizing effect on fellow leftist historians and non-academics who read it. It may not be a complete history, but it changed things for the better.


There are two crucial differences between A People’s History and McKay’s recent work. The first is that, when A People’s History was first released, it was a much-needed corrective against the historical mainstream, which still treated figures like Christopher Columbus and Andrew Jackson with kid gloves. The second is that, regardless of if Zinn believed the 99 percent could learn anything from history, he believed that the reader could. His tone was often strident, but he did not talk down to his audience. He had such faith in them, in fact, that he wrote an edition of A People’s History for children, where he invited them to “imagine the American people united for the first time in a movement for fundamental change.”

But 2022 is a very different time from 1980. Dour, exhausted cynicism is modern society’s lingua franca. Institutions are regarded with mistrust and contempt. More and more people believe that society will collapse in their lifetimes, and there has been a rash of suicides brought on by despair over climate change. In short, people feel as though they’re completely powerless: powerless to stop climate change, powerless to rein in capitalism, powerless to make their own lives better.

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Adam McKay may not have intended it, but his movies tell those people that they’re absolutely right. They are powerless. They are weak, shallow, and easily fooled. They were left holding the bag when the Jared Vennetts of the world crashed the world economy, and if it happens again they’ll still be left holding the bag. They stood by while Dick Cheney schemed his way into unchecked power behind the scenes, and for a while they even cheered him on. They are kept calm and compliant by false reassurances and narcotizing entertainment, and by the time they look up and open their eyes it will be too late.

Maybe all of that is true, and maybe it isn’t. But when the movie is intended to shed light on the issues or spur people into action, that jaded, condescending outlook just makes real change seem impossible. The Big Short may have had Margot Robbie explain subprime mortgages to the audience drinking champagne in a bubble bath, but when even the film itself doesn’t expect you to do anything useful with it, what does it matter?


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Review: SAMARITAN, A Sly Stallone Superhero Stumble

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Review: SAMARITAN, A Sly Stallone Superhero Stumble

Hitting the three-quarter-century mark usually means a retirement home, a nursing facility, or if you’re lucky to be blessed with relatively good health and savings to match, living in a gated community in Arizona or Florida.

For Sylvester Stallone, however, it means something else entirely: starring in the first superhero-centered film of his decades-long career in the much-delayed Samaritan. Unfortunately for Stallone and the audience on the other side of the screen, the derivative, turgid, forgettable results won’t get mentioned in a career retrospective, let alone among the ever-expanding list of must-see entries in a genre already well past its peak.

For Stallone, however, it’s better late than never when it involves the superhero genre. Maybe in getting a taste of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) with his walk-on role in the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel several years ago, Stallone thought anything Marvel can do, I can do even better (or just as good in the nebulous definition of the word).

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The property Stallone and his team found for him, Samaritan, a little-known graphic novel released by a small, almost negligible, publisher, certainly takes advantage of Stallone’s brute-force physicality and his often underrated talent for near-monosyllabic brooding (e.g., the Rambo series), but too often gives him to little do or say as the lone super-powered survivor, the so-called “Samaritan” of the title, of a lifelong rivalry with his brother, “Nemesis.” Two brothers entered a fire-ravaged building and while both were presumed dead, one brother did survive (Stallone’s Joe Smith, a garbageman by day, an appliance repairman by night).

In the Granite City of screenwriter Bragi F. Schut (Escape Room, Season of the Witch), the United States, and presumably the rest of the world, teeters on economic and political collapse, with a recession spiraling into a depression, steady gigs difficult, if not impossible, to obtain, and the city’s neighborhoods rocked by crime and violence. No one’s safe, not even 13-year-old Sam (Javon Walker), Joe’s neighbor.

When he’s not dodging bullies connected to a gang, he’s falling under the undue influence of Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), a low-rent gang leader with an outsized ego and the conviction that he and only he can take on Nemesis’s mantle and along with that mantle, a hammer “forged in hate,” to orchestrate a Bane-like plan to plunge the city into chaos and become a wealthy power-broker in the process.

Schut’s woefully underwritten script takes a clumsy, haphazard approach to world-building, relying on a two-minute animated sequence to open Samaritan while a naive, worshipful Sam narrates Samaritan and Nemesis’s supposedly tragic, Cain and Abel-inspired backstory. Schut and director Julius Avery (Overlord) clumsily attempt to contrast Sam’s childish belief in messiah-like, superheroic saviors stepping in to save humanity from itself and its own worst excesses, but following that path leads to authoritarianism and fascism (ideas better, more thoroughly explored in Watchmen and The Boys).

While Sam continues to think otherwise, Stallone’s superhero, 25 years past his last, fatal encounter with his presumably deceased brother, obviously believes superheroes are the problem and not the solution (a somewhat reasonable position), but as Samaritan tracks Joe and Sam’s friendship, Sam giving Joe the son he never had, Joe giving Sam the father he lost to street violence well before the film’s opening scene, it gets closer and closer to embracing, if not outright endorsing Sam’s power fantasies, right through a literally and figuratively explosive ending. Might, as always, wins regardless of how righteous or justified the underlying action.

It’s what superhero audiences want, apparently, and what Samaritan uncritically delivers via a woefully under-rendered finale involving not just unconvincing CGI fire effects, but a videogame cut-scene quality Stallone in a late-film flashback sequence that’s meant to be subversively revelatory, but will instead lead to unintentional laughter for anyone who’s managed to sit the entirety of Samaritan’s one-hour and 40-minute running time.

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Samaritan is now streaming worldwide on Prime Video.

Samaritan

Cast
  • Sylvester Stallone
  • Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton
  • Pilou Asbæk

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Matt Shakman Is In Talks To Direct ‘Fantastic Four’

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According to a new report, Wandavision’s Matt Shakman is in talks to direct the upcoming MCU project, Fantastic Four. Marvel Studios has been very hush-hush regarding Fantastic Four to the point where no official announcements have been made other than the film’s release date. No casting news or literally anything other than rumors has been released regarding the project. We know that Fantastic Four is slated for release on November 8th, 2024, and will be a part of Marvel’s Phase 6. There are also rumors that the cast of the new Fantastic Four will be announced at the D23 Expo on September 9th.

Fantastic Four is still over two years from release, and we assume we will hear more news about the project in the coming months. However, the idea of the Fantastic Four has already been introduced into the MCU. John Krasinski played Reed Richards aka Mr. Fantastic in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The cameo was a huge deal for fans who have been waiting a long time for the Fantastic Four to enter the MCU. When Disney acquired Twenty Century Fox in 2019 we assumed that the Fox Marvel characters would eventually make their way into the MCU. It’s been 3 years and we already have had an X-Men and Fantastic Four cameo – even if they were from another universe.

Deadline is reporting that Wandavision’s Matt Shakman is in talks to direct Fantastic Four. Shakman served as the director for Wandavision and has had an extensive career. He directed two episodes of Game of Thrones and an episode of The Boys, and he had a long stint on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. There is nothing official yet, but Deadline’s sources say that Shakman is currently in talks for the job and things are headed in the right direction.

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To be honest, I was a bit more excited when Jon Watts was set to direct. I’m sure Shakman is a good director, but Watts proved he could handle a tentpole superhero film with Spider-Man: Homecoming. Wandavision was good, but Watts’ style would have been perfect for Fantastic Four. The film is probably one of the most anticipated films in Marvel’s upcoming slate films and they need to find the best person they can to direct. Is that Matt Shakman? It could be, but whoever takes the job must realize that Marvel has a lot riding on this movie. The other Fantastic Four films were awful and fans deserve better. Hopefully, Marvel knocks it out of the park as they usually do. You can see for yourself when Fantastic Four hits theaters on November 8th, 2024.

Film Synopsis: One of Marvel’s most iconic families makes it to the big screen: the Fantastic Four.

Source: Deadline

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Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase Star in ‘Zombie Town’ Mystery Teen Romancer (Exclusive)

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Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase have entered Zombie Town, a mystery teen romancer based on author R.L. Stine’s book of the same name.

The indie, now shooting in Ontario, also stars Henry Czerny and co-teen leads Marlon Kazadi and Madi Monroe. The ensemble cast includes Scott Thompson and Bruce McCulloch of the Canadian comedy show Kids in the Hall.

Canadian animator Peter Lepeniotis will direct Zombie Town. Stine’s kid’s book sees a quiet town upended when 12-year-old Mike and his friend, Karen, see a horror movie called Zombie Town and unexpectedly see the title characters leap off the screen and chase them through the theater.

Zombie Town will premiere in U.S. theaters before streaming on Hulu and then ABC Australia in 2023.

“We are delighted to bring the pages of R.L. Stine’s Zombie Town to the screen and equally thrilled to be working with such an exceptional cast and crew on this production. A three-time Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award winner with book sales of over $500 million, R.L. Stine has a phenomenal track record of crafting stories that engage and entertain audiences,” John Gillespie, Trimuse Entertainment founder and executive producer, said in a statement.

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Executive producers are Trimuse Entertainment, Toonz Media Group, Lookout Entertainment, Viva Pictures and Sons of Anarchy actor Kim Coates.  

Paco Alvarez and Mark Holdom of Trimuse negotiated the deal to acquire the rights to Stine’s Zombie Town book.

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